As outrage builds over the NFL’s handling of recent domestic-violence incidents involving top players such as Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, critics point out it’s not a new problem: The league’s apparent apathy over players’ mistreatment of women and children goes back several decades. And financial incentives appear to have been more effective than has any sense of moral obligation in spurring the league to take steps to address the problem.
“If you look at them historically, [the NFL’s] position on this particular crime in the mid-’90s was that it doesn’t really have anything to do with them,” said Jeff Benedict, award-winning investigative journalist and co-author of the 1998 book “Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL.” “It’s a family matter, it happens off the field, it doesn’t affect the game. In those days, they had a pretty hard-and-fast rule that things that happened off the field that didn’t have a direct relationship to what happened on the field was not the business of the NFL.”
Domestic violence linked to players may not have had much impact on the league’s bottom line, but it did affect the lives of hundreds of women. From 1989 to 1994 alone, 140 current and former professional or college football players were reported to police for violent acts against women, the Washington Post reported in 1994.
Despite the frequency of these incidents, the NFL’s domestic-violence problem never really captured the public’s attention until the 1994 arrest of Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee O.J. Simpson, who was charged and ultimately acquitted of the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. When writing their book, Benedict and co-author Don Yaeger planned to perform a general analysis of NFL-related crime statistics. Instead, they uncovered a virtual epidemic of NFL players who engaged in violent acts against women.
“We looked more broadly at the whole question of crime [within the NFL]. We did criminal background checks on over 500 players, which was about a third of the league at that time ... it was completely random. Of those 500, 21 percent of them had a record for a serious crime. The most prominent crime was domestic violence,” Benedict said.
Confronted with this problem at the time, the NFL denied it was its responsibility to act. “We’re not the criminal-justice system. We can’t cure every ill in society,” league representative Greg Aiello once told the Washington Post. “You know, we’re putting on football games. And unless it impacts the business, we have to be very careful about the disciplinary action we take. A player has rights, too.”
Without a strong response from the league, prominent NFL players who were charged with domestic abuse were able to continue their playing careers without rebuke. One notable case involved future Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, then a member of the Minnesota Vikings, who was arrested in 1995 for the apparent assault of his wife, Felicia Moon.
Moon was acquitted, in part because his wife refused to testify against him, declining to tell a jury how she got her bruises. The Vikings quarterback never faced so much as a suspension for his actions. When pressed by members of Congress to reprimand Moon, Joe Brown, a former NFL senior vice president of communications and government affairs, said an official acknowledgement of a domestic-violence problem within the league would “unfairly stigmatize athletes by inevitably suggesting that they have a particular propensity to engage in such behavior when there is no basis for such an implication.”
“At the time, the NFL spent most of its time arguing with us about statistics and whether or not the statistics were relevant and whether or not the statistics mattered in the grand scheme,” said Yaeger, a New York Times best-selling author and former associate editor at Sports Illustrated. “And [they would say,] ‘Look at these poor young men that we’re picking out of impoverished neighborhoods and we’re giving an opportunity to, what more can you expect.’ It was such a pathetic response from the NFL many years ago that I was not at all shocked to watch how badly they’ve bungled it today.”
Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, predecessor of current Commissioner Roger Goodell, focused on the growth of professional football rather than the off-the-field antics of its players. As long as athletes did not engage in any behavior that could damage the league’s on-field credibility -- such as gambling on games or performance-enhancing drug use -- the NFL mostly relied on the criminal-justice system to dole out punishment.
The problem continued virtually unabated into the 2000s. Among the 713 arrests of NFL players from 2000 to 2014, 85 were related to domestic violence, according to an analysis of a USA Today database. Although certain cases, such as a 2012 incident in which former Miami Dolphin Chad Johnson allegedly headbutted his wife of one month, succeeded in temporarily generating outrage, most such offenses went unpunished. Since 2006, 34 of the league’s 57 domestic-violence incidents went undisciplined, without much attention from the public.
That all changed in February, when Rice, a veteran running back for the Baltimore Ravens, knocked out his then-fiancée Janay Palmer during a dispute in a casino elevator in Atlantic City, N.J. The 27-year-old player was filmed dragging Palmer’s unconscious body off the elevator, where he was confronted by security.
The evidence against Rice forced Goodell’s hand. After months of review, the commissioner announced in July that Rice would be suspended without pay for the first two games of the NFL season. Still, the penalty -- while substantial compared with action the league had taken in similar cases in the past -- was considered too light by domestic-violence activists.
By August, pressure from critics grew so intense that the typically self-assured Goodell admitted he “didn’t get it right” and announced sweeping changes in the NFL’s disciplinary policy on domestic-violence incidents. “My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families,” he wrote in a letter to the league’s owners.
“The commissioner’s statement -- ‘I didn’t get it right’ -- that was impressive. You don’t see Roger Goodell do that often,” Yaeger said.
In light of the new policy, the public’s outrage against Goodell was sated -- but not for long. Less than two weeks after Goodell’s announcement, TMZ Sports obtained previously unseen surveillance footage of Rice’s assault on Palmer. The second video explicitly displayed the punch to the head that rendered her unconscious.
Almost immediately, the NFL’s front office began damage control. The Ravens terminated the remaining years on Rice’s contract, while Goodell announced the player would be indefinitely suspended from professional football.
Neither Goodell nor any other top NFL executive saw the surveillance footage before Rice received his initial two-game suspension, the league said in a statement. Moreover, the league claimed its attempts to obtain the video from law enforcement were unavailing. Some reports suggested Rice had misled investigators regarding the progression of events in that Atlantic City casino elevator.
“I said from day one that there was no way that was true, that there was no way that if there was a video that existed, that the NFL couldn’t get it if they wanted it. The commissioner’s pathetic response that ‘we lean on law enforcement only,’ that’s not true. Just like Major League Baseball figured out how to get BioGenesis information in ways that were unconventional to say the least. If the NFL wanted to deal with this, they could’ve gotten that video easy,” Yaeger said.
Within hours of the league’s declaration, an unnamed law-enforcement official directly contradicted the claim that no NFL executive ever saw the surveillance footage. The source told the Associated Press a league official confirmed receipt of the video and acknowledged the severity of its content. In response, the NFL reiterated Sept. 12 that it never obtained the video, but promised to look into the matter.
It took just two more days for the NFL to face yet another severe case of domestic abuse. Peterson, the face of the Vikings, was indicted Sept. 12 on a charge of reckless or negligent injury to a child after he allegedly beat his 4-year-old son with a so-called switch. While the Vikings opted this week to indefinitely deactivate Peterson from their active roster, the NFL has yet to discipline him -- a fact that hasn’t escaped the notice of the league’s sponsors.
Some of the league’s biggest sponsors -- Anheuser Busch Inbev SA, the Campbell Soup Co., the McDonald's Corp., PepsiCo Inc. and Visa Inc. -- each issued statements slamming the NFL for allowing its problem with violence against women and children to reach critical mass, as noted by the New York Daily News. For the first time, Aiello’s assertion that the league will only act when it “impacts the business” will be put to the test.
While announcing the league’s new penalties for domestic-violence offenses, Goodell spoke to the league’s sincerity and commitment to eradicating the problem. But, for Yaeger, the only change in the NFL’s attitude since the 1990s is an increased awareness of the financial stakes of the situation.
“The league is in a much different place than it was back then. Now, an Anheuser-Busch can wag its finger at the league, and the league has to say, ‘Oh crap, we could be in trouble here.’ I think the numbers are so outrageous and ownership of these teams has become such a more valuable asset than it ever was. It’s a pure dollars-and-cents game right now. I don’t think they care any more about domestic violence today than they did in 1998. I think they care about the dollars and cents of domestic violence,” Yaeger said. “I think it’s solely financial. I hate to be so cynical, but if this was a moral obligation, the moral obligation has been out there.”
Cindy Southworth, vice president of development and innovation at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, is a bit more optimistic about the NFL’s intentions. Shortly after the announcement of Rice’s initial two-game suspension, the resulting public outcry prompted Goodell to reach out to NNEDV President Kim Gandy, as ESPN recounted. In a lengthy phone conversation, Goodell asked Gandy to advise him on how the NFL could take the necessary steps to raise national awareness for domestic violence and combat its own struggles with the epidemic. Still, questions about the league’s motives remain.
“They’re really trying, but when you step back and look at any major change ... organizational change, social change is not easy. We see it even when we change laws. We’ll pass the Violence Against Women Act, and that’s a piece of the pie, but then implementing it is a whole different cup of tea. What we’re seeing with the NFL is very apparent commitment, but earnest commitment only gets you so far. Implementation is sticky and messy and challenging. My experience is that they seem genuine, but sometimes you can try and flounder,” Southworth said.
Goodell’s failure to act until the release of Rice’s incriminating surveillance footage was particularly troubling, she added. “Why did they wait until now? They’ve had opportunities for decades to address this. We’ve had an extremely organized movement working to end domestic and sexual violence for 40 years. We’ve been doing national events at the White House. We’ve been very public for quite some time working to end this issue, and there have been very public arrests for a number of years.”
Moreover, the NFL’s new disciplinary policy -- a six-game suspension for a first offense and an indefinite suspension for an indefinite offense -- fails to adequately define what constitutes an offense, critics say. That means players such as San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald, who was arrested in August for allegedly causing visible injury to his pregnant fiancée, and Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, who was found guilty of assaulting his ex-girlfriend this summer, continue to play despite ongoing legal action against them.
“I’m sort of appalled to see people playing that are either indicted or convicted because those don’t come easy in the field, and if you get one of those, it was a really serious case,” Southworth said. “Think about it the other way -- if we had a police officer on the force who was arrested for domestic violence, they would be benched. They would be on desk duty, specifically without their weapon, until the legal process is finished. You have to have probable cause to arrest, you can’t just arrest on a whim. To me, an indictment means something. It’s not a conviction, but it’s a serious legal action. At a minimum, the NFL should be responding to serious legal action.”
At its core, the NFL serves as a source of entertainment, and entertainment outlets are rarely expected to spearhead societal change. And yet, given its massive audience, the league possesses a rare opportunity to open a national dialogue on a subject that affects more than one in three women, according to NNEDV statistics (PDF).
“From our standpoint, while we’ve been dismayed at how the NFL has handled domestic-violence cases in the past, and even very recently, we’re cautiously optimistic that if they do truly live up to their promise to take this issue on, put resources toward it -- training, public awareness, education, holding their athletes accountable -- they actually have the potential to do a phenomenal amount of good in changing the way society addresses domestic violence,” Southworth said.
But the league can’t wait for another Moon or Rice before it acts. For an organization that was first confronted with a domestic-violence problem more than two decades ago, public patience is wearing thin.
“When you’re looking for a sports league whose primary purpose is to entertain us by watching men knock each other down, you can’t expect that kind of an organization to move rapidly on a cutting-edge social issue,” said Benedict. “I’m not saying domestic violence is a cutting-edge social issue today. It’s not. But in 1994, it was. Back then, they weren’t moving at all. ... That position has modified over the years, but it’s been moving at the speed of a glacier.”