The NFL's Domestic Violence Policy Isn't Working Because It Wasn't Designed To

In August 2014, as the NFL faced massive public outcry over its handling of the Ray Rice domestic violence case, Commissioner Roger Goodell unveiled a new policy aimed at ensuring that he and his league would not repeat the same mistakes in the future.

Two years later, it did exactly that. This time, the player in question is New York Giants kicker Josh Brown.

The NFL initially suspended Brown for one game at the start of the 2016 season, upon completing an investigation that began after the league learned in May 2015 that Brown had been arrested at his home on charges of abusing his then-wife, Molly. In the course of the investigation, the NFL said in August, the league determined that Brown had violated its Personal Conduct Policy, but that because Molly Brown and law enforcement declined to participate in the probe, it “had insufficient information to corroborate prior allegations,” and would not discipline him further.

Brown served the suspension and returned to the field, and the case was largely forgotten. Until Thursday, that is, when newly released police documents showed that Brown had admitted to a history of abuse against his wife.

The NFL was forced to revisit the case. On Friday, it placed Brown on the commissioner’s exempt list, effectively putting him on paid leave and removing him from the Giants’ roster while it resumes its investigation. 

The new elements of the case naturally raised questions about why he received such a light suspension, and on a larger scale, about whether the NFL and Goodell have made any progress in the way they handle incidents of domestic violence involving players.

None of this, though, should be particularly shocking. If the league’s domestic violence policy hasn’t forced the NFL to handle cases like Brown’s with the sort of gravity it lacked in Rice’s situation, it’s because it wasn’t designed to.

Instead, as one NFL owner essentially admitted later, the new policy was primarily a public relations act, aimed not at reshaping the league’s approach to or attitude toward domestic violence but at answering the outcry.

That much was clear from its details. On the disciplinary side, Goodell’s “new” policy laid out a road map for domestic violence incidents: The league would suspend first-time offenders for six games, and a second offense would result in a lifetime ban from the NFL (in reality, it was an indefinite suspension with the possibility of reinstatement after one year). It was an admission, Goodell said then, that the league had gotten the Rice case wrong, and that it would make meaningful changes as a result.

Little about the disciplinary aspect of that policy, however, was actually new. The domestic violence and sexual assault process Goodell outlined was left under the aforementioned Personal Conduct Policy, which already gave the commissioner the power to level essentially whatever suspension he saw fit for a violation. Goodell, in other words, already had the authority to suspend players involved in domestic violence incidents. 

The six-game and lifetime suspensions, meanwhile, were mere suggestions. Goodell left enough wiggle room in the policy to allow him to consider “mitigating factors,” and evaluate each case on an individual basis to determine whether players should be suspended for more, or fewer, games.  

The result was entirely predictable. 

Instead of a clear-cut policy for addressing incidents of domestic violence involving NFL players, it became another front on which the league and its players union ― which claimed it was barely involved in the policy’s design or implementation ― went to battle over Goodell’s oft-contested disciplinary powers, especially after he ignored the six-game/one-year road map in his suspensions of Rice, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson (for alleged child abuse) and then-Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy. Goodell, in fact, has yet to issue a supposedly standard six-game suspension for domestic violence.

And instead of actual progress, it left the NFL feeling as if it had done something to address the problem when in reality it hadn’t. 

The NFL knew, or should have been able to know, that the Rice incident was serious even before the now-infamous second video came out. The NFL and the Giants knew, according to a report, that Molly Brown had requested a new hotel room at the Pro Bowl earlier this year because Brown was drunkenly banging on her door. And at a Thursday news conference, Giants co-owner John Mara said that Brown had “certainly admitted to us that he abused his wife in the past.

“What’s a little unclear is the extent of that,” he said.

In the Rice case, the league was criticized for conducting a halfhearted investigation into the incident. This time, it maintained that it had reached out to law enforcement authorities in King County, Washington ― where police were investigating Brown ― but did not receive enough cooperation. However, reporters have obtained relevant investigation documents through routine public records requests that the NFL could have performed on its own, and a King County sheriff said Thursday that the league official who did request information never made it clear he represented the NFL. (The NFL disputed that claim Friday morning.) 

The league’s decision to bring Janay Rice in for questioning alongside her husband, meanwhile, may have contributed to Molly Brown’s decision not to cooperate with the NFL.

There are meaningful elements of the NFL’s updated domestic violence policy that don’t involve discipline ― though the Brown case also calls some of those into question. There are also legitimate questions about whether the league should be our moral arbiter on such a serious issue, and if the expectation that it conduct extrajudicial investigations in order to determine a suspension that will satisfy everyone is at all reasonable. 

But the NFL has chosen to act, and the public has demanded it do so.

The problem is that the majority of the league’s actions on domestic violence, from the “new” policy to its commercial partnership with the No More campaign, have been outward facing, aimed at convincing us all it is taking this issue seriously rather than actually doing so.

So if the NFL has yet to enact a substantive shift in its or its teams’ attitudes toward domestic violence and the treatment of women, it’s because the league’s actions in the wake of the Rice case were never meant to have that effect.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

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