The National Football League (NFL) has a domestic violence problem. According to an independent database of NFL arrests, there have been approximately 100 players accused of domestic violence since 2000.
After Ray Rice, former Baltimore Ravens running back, was accused of assaulting his fiancée in 2014, the NFL created a protocol for how to punish players for domestic violence or sexual assault: For a first offense, players will be suspended for six weeks without pay, and second-time offenders will be banished from the league for a year. That year, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) also created a special commission, The NFL Players Association on Violence Prevention, responsible for examining how they can handle domestic violence and support survivors in the future.
But this month, Deborah Epstein, a researcher who specializes in domestic violence, and Susan Else, former president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, resigned from the commission, with Epstein stating that the NFLPA repeatedly failed to instate her suggestions for ways to reduce intimate-partner violence. "The Player's Association contacts that I have would welcome those ideas, tell me they were eminently doable, but that they had to get kicked down the road because, 'It was the Super Bowl, it was the draft, it was the season,'" she told NPR. "And I would come back and reiterate my suggestions, and eventually I found that communication would just die on the vine."
In an op-ed for The Washington Post last month, Epstein wrote: "Authorizing a single study, and then burying it through a confidentiality agreement and shelving its recommendations does not constitute meaningful reform. Because I care deeply about violence against women in the NFL and beyond, I can no longer continue to be part of a commission that is essentially a fig leaf."
Representatives from the NFLPA have said that they support Epstein's decision, but insist that they actually did implement some of her suggestions — like hiring a "director of wellness," providing crisis training for staff, and emphasizing marriage counseling and enrichment. But Epstein said that the individuals they hired for these roles aren't equipped to handle domestic violence cases, specifically.
Perhaps more disturbing, Epstein told NPR that the NFLPA's recommendations for treating domestic violence through marriage counseling actually goes against how clinicians handle these types of cases. "When a power dynamic in a relationship is so deeply unequal, it's not the way to go," she told NPR. "So they are not only taking inadequate actions, they are taking actions that are not recommended by the advocacy community."
At the moment, all eyes are on the NFLPA to see how they will move forward. Epstein said that she thinks the NFLPA should make the findings from her study public, and work with players to implement the proposed changes — but progress seems unlikely. We reached out to the NFLPA for comment about how they plan to move forward, but did not hear back at the time of publish. One thing that's for sure is that Epstein and Else's departures signal that there's a bigger institutional issue at hand, and lip service from the NFLPA will not cut it.
If you are experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 for confidential support.