The actors pause. The moderator turns to the room full of football players and begins a discussion about bystander intervention. The scene is a sketch at the National Football League’s Rookie Symposium, part of the league's first-ever domestic violence training program.
In July 2014, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sparked widespread criticism for his handling of then-Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who was caught on video knocking his wife unconscious and dragging her limp body out of an elevator. In response to Rice’s actions, Goodell suspended him — for two games. (For context, in that same year, the league suspended some players up to one year for substance abuse.)
The backlash was instant. Keith Olbermann wondered on TV if the NFL’s actions were creating a generation of athletes and fans who “view the women in sports as just a little less human.” Many asked if Goodell should lose his job. Women talked about whether or not it was still okay to be fans.
Many asked if Goodell should lose his job. Women talked about whether or not it was still okay to be fans.
Now, a year later, we decided to look back and see how it's working. The league is definitely making moves around domestic violence — the big question is, is it enough?
A few months after the Rice incident, in September 2014, the league created its first domestic violence policy. Under it, first-time offenders would receive a six-game suspension and an additional offense would be grounds for removal from the league entirely. It also created a personal conduct policy and a set of violence response procedures meant to insure that no incident falls through the cracks. And the league created training programs for high schools and colleges to shape those who one day may become professional athletes.
The league also brought on several women with experience in domestic violence prevention. It worked with Kim Wells of the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence to draft the conduct policy. It also brought on Lisa Friel, a former prosecutor and chief of the Sex Crimes Unit in Manhattan, to be special counsel for investigations. The NFL sent her on a “fact-finding trip,” asking everyone from players' wives to clergy members about the issues that are most important to them, along with others. And the league released a PSA about domestic violence, which it created in partnership with NO MORE.
To see if it was really happening, we reached out to a bunch of players (more on that in a second) to make sure they'd gotten the training and to see what they thought. Jurrell Casey, a defensive end for the Tennessee Titans, confirmed he and his teammates had seen two videos focusing on verbal and physical abuse. He said he found the verbal abuse example especially interesting, because it’s “not discussed as often,” and he liked how the team had to talk through what was happening. “It was interesting and effective to watch him talk through his emotions and suggest ways we should do the same if we become angry,” Casey wrote in an email.
“A lot of us (including me) were raised by [our] mothers,” he wrote. “So when I see a video of a woman being abused and her neighbors not helping her...It’s so crazy.”
We also got the Giants' Victor Cruz, who said NFL’s domestic violence training was “interesting,” adding that it “opened our eyes” to a lot of situations that he and his teammates hadn’t really considered to be domestic violence. “Even yelling and raising your voice is an issue,” he told me over the phone, "especially as a male toward a female.”
The response from the domestic violence advocacy community has been tepid. A representative from the National Network to End Domestic Violence called the NFL’s policy is “an important step in the right direction." Though, she did add that the training new players get seemed “far too brief to have real impact.”
And as with anything a giant, profitable corporation does, it's hard to gauge the honesty of its motivations. For example, a big initiative Anna Isaacson, one of the league's new domestic violence prevention folks, told us about was re-engaging the female fanbase. That's great if it means making the culture of football more inclusive, but of course, it also means more eyes watching football games and buying NFL merch.
But maybe most tellingly, the vast majority of players I reached out to didn't want to talk about it. When I started on this project, I picked three teams at random and reached out to 100 players — via their managers, reps, and even the email addresses you can still find on their online résumés from college. In total, ninety-eight players didn't get back to me or declined to talk about it — really 99, since we slipped Cruz's questions into a promotional interview about fragrance.
So, they're for sure doing something. The question then becomes, for a league that makes 10 billion dollars a year, is it enough?
All the advocates we talked to agreed, suggesting that one real way to make change would be to use players' influence over each other and the fans. The NNEDV said, “A more effective model would be to identify a few players on every team who are highly respected by their peers, provide training for them, and then have those players present trainings to the players on their own teams.”
Ruth Glenn, executive director for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, seems to agree. “I’m hoping they understand what domestic violence is, [and that] they’re calling their teammates and peers on it,” she said over the phone. “That’s why bystander education is so important. Those guys are close. If they know someone on their team is probably perpetrating domestic violence, they have to have the ability to say, ‘Hey dude, what’s going on?’” she added.
The NFL employs more rich, influential, famous, and looked-up-to young men than perhaps any other entity
The key idea is “highly respected.” Dwight Hollier, the NFL's vice president of wellness and clinical services, said players have a “unique opportunity” to start larger conversations about domestic violence. “People look up to football players, for better or for worse,” he said. “We have a chance to use that stage to change what those eyes see.” And he’s right. The players hold a special place in American culture and their silence on the issue is a problem. No matter how effective the NFL’s domestic violence training is internally, it goes nowhere unless the players themselves talk about it.
According to a Google Trends report, the top five most searched players in the U.S. in the 2015 preseason are Tom Brady, Tim Tebow, Jordy Nelson, Robert Griffin III, and J.J. Watt. Of those players, only Nelson has spoken openly about domestic violence. But what if all of them did?
Glenn said that while it’s completely up to the players whether or not they want to talk about domestic violence publicly, they do have an opportunity to effect a cultural change. Perhaps, she suggested, the NFL could have their players wear purple helmets for domestic violence awareness, the way it incorporated pink peripherals for breast cancer
Glenn was also concerned with making sure the NFL will continually educate its players and evaluate its programming. “We write policies and you know what happens to them? We put them on shelves,” she said. “We forget about them. We don’t follow up. We don’t evaluate. We don’t see what kind of changes, if any, are taking place because of that policy."