Domestic violence red flags are easy to find in coaches’ pasts, but did NFL teams spot them?

Rachel Axon, USA TODAY

In 2017, then-Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter hired Skyler Fulton out of the junior college coaching ranks to be an offensive assistant. Fulton’s big opportunity, which included a promotion to receivers coach a year later, came despite a troubling history that includes an arrest on a domestic violence charge and multiple women alleging threatening behavior – the type of red flags that would have subjected him to additional scrutiny if he’d joined the NFL as a player instead of a coach.

Koetter and Bucs officials never called relevant parties, including Fulton’s employer at California’s Citrus College, where Fulton had again been accused of violence against another woman three months before leaving for his NFL job.

“No, I’ve never talked with Dirk [Koetter] or anybody. Nobody,” said Citrus College football coach Ron Ponciano, who described Fulton’s tenure as “brief and rocky.”

Scroll to continue with content
Ad
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive assistant Skyler Fulton was accused of domestic violence.
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive assistant Skyler Fulton was accused of domestic violence.

After his much-criticized handling of the Ray Rice case five years ago, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized and promised to “do more” when it comes to domestic violence. Among other changes, he followed up with an updated conduct policy that gives league officials broad authority to mete out punishment, even in instances when law enforcement is not involved.

The personal conduct policy became the cornerstone of the league’s reform efforts, and it applies to all team and league employees. But NFL coaches have not faced the same pre-employment scrutiny as players, a USA TODAY examination found, giving credence to critics who say the NFL’s efforts on domestic violence are little more than a public relations campaign.

USA TODAY reporters conducted cursory background checks on the more than 700 coaches listed on NFL team websites during the 2018-19 season, then obtained public records for alleged violent incidents that warranted further review. The effort – which was much less comprehensive than the robust investigations that NFL and team officials boast about deploying on their players – revealed red flags in the history of Fulton and three other coaches.

They included:

•Oakland Raiders strength and conditioning assistant Rick Slate was the subject of at least five orders of protection and was arrested three times in domestic disputes, though charges were dropped. All of the incidents occurred before he joined the Raiders last year after a 25-year career as a strength coach in Major League Baseball.

•Former Bucs’ assistant defensive line coach Paul Spicer twice faced petitions for orders of protection in 2005 and 2008 while he was a player for Jacksonville. One was granted temporarily, the other was not, and the woman dismissed them both. In one instance, the woman alleged that Spicer had wrapped her shirt around her neck and choked her with it.

•Jacksonville Jaguars linebackers coach Mark Collins allegedly made a female team contractor fear for her safety as he continued to call her and visit her home and work as their relationship was ending, according to a petition in 2018 for an order of protection the woman filed. She withdrew it before a hearing.

Although USA TODAY's search probably missed other examples, the cases reveal that NFL and team officials have fallen short of the type of thorough background checks they claimed they do to hold employees to a higher standard when it comes to violence against women.

Goodell has repeatedly touted the NFL’s commitment to being a leader on the issue of domestic violence, but he declined to be interviewed for this story.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy put the onus on the teams and said the NFL does not get involved in vetting coaches.

The NFL does not have a policy for vetting coaches or guidance on best practices, but McCarthy said the teams can consult with league officials. The NFL conducts criminal background checks for prospects who are invited to its draft combine.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says the league is committed on domestic violence issues.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says the league is committed on domestic violence issues.

“The hiring of personnel is the lone responsibility of individual clubs,” he said. “Clubs do extensive background checks (and) make every effort to understand the background of people who will be associated with their franchise."

The Bucs declined to make general manager Jason Licht available for an interview, and they declined to answer written questions sent to a spokesman. Koetter, a coordinator with the Atlanta Falcons, declined an interview request and did not respond to written questions sent to a team spokesman.

Fulton, who had criminal charges dismissed after he completed a pretrial diversion program, declined to comment.

Similar to the Fulton example, USA TODAY found a lack of due diligence by team officials in the Slate, Spicer and Collins cases, in which information was readily available to anyone with an internet connection or a telephone.

An MLB official, who had direct knowledge of the situation but was not authorized to talk publicly, said nobody from the Raiders reached out to baseball’s investigative division about Slate before hiring him.

Slate declined to comment, and Raiders officials would not make head coach Jon Gruden available for an interview. The team did not answer written questions sent to its spokesman.

Spicer, in an interview with USA TODAY, said the petitions filed against him never came up during the interview process before the Bucs hired him in 2015. Spicer suggested that the Bucs probably determined that the allegations had no merit because the petitions were dropped, and that’s why it has never been an obstacle in his coaching career.

“If there was any real teeth to anything she said, I wouldn’t be working where I’m working now,” said Spicer, an assistant coach at the University of South Florida. “It has nothing to do with the NFL. I wouldn’t have a job now in coaching.” 

Mark Collins' attorney says Jaguars team officials know about the protection petition a woman filed against Collins.
Mark Collins' attorney says Jaguars team officials know about the protection petition a woman filed against Collins.

Collins' attorney Hank Coxe said Jaguars team officials are aware of the petition the woman filed. Coxe said Collins would not comment.

“He has no interest in resurrecting that unpleasant memory,” said Coxe, who has represented many Jaguars players in criminal matters over the past two decades. “And his attitude is, he would rather it be steered to the team and let them answer it because they knew all about it.”

Because the NFL’s personal conduct policy prohibits “stalking, harassment, or similar forms of intimidation,” Jaguars officials probably would have been obligated to report to the NFL that a petition for an order of protection had been filed against Collins. The Jaguars declined to make executive vice president for football operations Tom Coughlin available for an interview, and the team declined to answer written questions sent to its spokesman.

McCarthy declined to say whether Jacksonville officials reported the matter to the NFL and if they had, what, if any, investigation the league conducted.

Is there something you want us to know about a domestic violence situation?

Whether it involves the NFL or some other institution or person, we want to hear from you. You can email us in confidence at investigate@usatoday.com. Need anonymity or security? Send records and tips to us via SecureDrop.

Rita Smith, an adviser to the NFL on domestic violence issues since 2014 and the former executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said teams should learn as much as they can about the coaches they hire.

“If I could encourage them to do anything, it would be to do as deep a dive as they can possibly do so that they make decisions that are well-informed and that gives them information about how this person is going to react under pressure,” Smith said. “And that matters, particularly if one of the things that they have done is that they've hurt someone else. You want to know that.”

NFL promised big changes after Rice case

In 2014, the NFL suspended Rice, a Pro-Bowl running back for the Baltimore Ravens, for two games after he was charged with aggravated assault against his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer. Prosecutors dropped the charge in a deal that required Rice to enter a pretrial intervention program.

The league’s light discipline generated criticism, in part because Rice’s suspension was shorter than what other players had received for drug violations. Then TMZ published video of Rice striking Palmer in the face and dragging her unconscious body. The NFL’s failure to obtain the video engulfed the league in accusations that it was not serious about addressing acts of violence against women.

Former NFL running back Ray Rice arrives with his wife, Janay Rice for his appeal hearing on his indefinite suspension from the NFL on Nov 5, 2014.
Former NFL running back Ray Rice arrives with his wife, Janay Rice for his appeal hearing on his indefinite suspension from the NFL on Nov 5, 2014.

Goodell apologized in September 2014 at a news conference and, as part of an effort to repair the damage to the league’s image, vowed  the league would do better.

“These incidents demonstrate that we can use the NFL to help create change, not only in our league but in society, with respect to domestic violence and sexual assault," he said. “For our part, we can and we will do more.”

The NFL revised its personal conduct policy, setting as a baseline a six-game suspension for a first case of domestic violence, with potential for a longer suspension. Additional steps included training for employees, hiring investigators, partnering with national organizations combating violence and launching a “No More” campaign of public service announcements.

“It is not enough simply to avoid being found guilty of a crime,” the policy states. “We are all held to a higher standard and must conduct ourselves in a way that is responsible, promotes the values of the NFL, and is lawful.”

NFL player arrests: See database of arrests since 2000

In 2016, the NFL notified teams it would not invite players to the draft combine if they had a conviction for violence, use of a weapon, domestic violence or a sexual offense, including assault. 

Coaches are subject to the personal conduct policy, yet little attention has been given to the coaching ranks despite some high-profile cases that have shown it’s not just an issue for NFL players.

Player misconduct: Ray Rice case prompted NFL changes on domestic violence, but cases continue to test policy

The Detroit Lions hired Matt Patricia as their head coach in 2018, but the team failed to uncover a case in 1996 when Patricia was a college student and he and a teammate were indicted on a charge of aggravated sexual assault. The case was dismissed when the woman declined to testify.

The Detroit News found the Patricia case in a routine background check. The Lions responded that Patricia was subject to “a standard pre-employment background check” that did not reveal the indictment.

After Denver hired Vance Joseph as its head coach in 2017, the Boulder Daily Camera reported that he was accused of sexually assaulting two trainers while he was an assistant coach at the University of Colorado in 2003. Joseph was not charged in the case, and he denied the allegations. He is now the defensive coordinator for the Arizona Cardinals.

In 2009, two women told ESPN’s "Outside the Lines" that then-Oakland Raiders head coach Tom Cable had been violent with them. Oakland fired Cable after the 2010 season, and he was an assistant coach in Seattle from 2011 to 2017. The Raiders rehired him in 2018 to join Gruden’s staff.

Those examples, plus the cases USA TODAY found, highlight the importance of thoroughly vetting personnel before hiring them, experts said.

“Obviously, they put much more stock in the players, but it should be the same risk assessment,” said Katherine Redmond, founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes. “The coaches should have the same background checks that they mandate the players have because the violence policy affects them in the same way.”

Bucs talk on due diligence doesn't match actions

Tampa Bay Bucs co-owner Bryan Glazer, during a panel discussion in early 2016, expressed his faith in how his team and the NFL handles allegations of player misconduct.

 “We do the best due diligence we can about anybody. We look into their background, talk to as many people as possible. That’s what every team does. We take domestic violence very seriously. The entire NFL does,” Glazer said. “I would say if we were ever considering a person that even had an allegation, we would do our due diligence, we would look into that incident as best we can.”

A few months later, Koetter, the head coach of Glazer's team, nominated Fulton to spend the preseason on the prestigious Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship.

Although the fellowship is an NFL initiative, McCarthy, the NFL spokesman, said teams are responsible for vetting the coaches who take part in the program.

“They are certainly well aware of the risks of being associated with any personnel that have had any issues previously,” McCarthy said.

The Bucs hired Fulton to serve as an offensive assistant in February 2017 and promoted him to receivers coach in January 2018.

Fulton’s criminal history, which is available in a standard background report, shows that in 2010, he was arrested in Washington and charged with assault and malicious mischief. Public records obtained from the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office state that Fulton grabbed a woman by the neck, shoved her to the ground, backhanded her across the face and “made a comment that he should just ‘kill both of them.' ”

(Unless otherwise noted, the women involved in the cases detailed in this story declined to be interviewed. USA TODAY typically does not name victims of domestic violence, and to further protect the identities of the women involved, USA TODAY is not describing their relationship to the men in this story.)

Fulton completed a pretrial diversion in the 2010 case, and prosecutors dismissed the charges. Other public records from the case include the witness statement of another woman, who told law enforcement of threats Fulton made against the woman he was accused of assaulting and her mother.

That second woman told an officer that Fulton "threatened suicide and killing people” during the entire time she’d known him. She sought an order of protection from an Arizona judge, though records were purged this year after USA TODAY obtained them.

Six years later, another woman alerted Fulton’s bosses at Citrus College about Fulton’s behavior toward her friend. 

In an email that is available in California court records and via a public records request to the school, the woman wrote that Fulton “has physically assaulted the parties involved" and harassed  "any family and friends associated with the victims.”

Several people involved “are fearful for their life and deathly afraid of Mr. Fulton,” the email states.

Two women named in public records concerning Fulton told USA TODAY that officials with the Bucs or the NFL never contacted them about his behavior.

Todd Marks, Fulton’s attorney, did not answer written questions from USA TODAY. In an email, he wrote, “Any and all allegations were appropriately addressed and our system of justice found in my client’s favor in each instance.”

Fulton, who left the Bucs when Koetter was fired after the 2018 season, is an assistant coach at Portland State in Oregon.

Paul Spicer says Tampa Bay never asked him about protection petitions filed against him.
Paul Spicer says Tampa Bay never asked him about protection petitions filed against him.

Spicer, another coach on Tampa Bay’s staff last season, said the team never asked him about the two petitions for orders of protection that a woman filed against him in 2005 and 2008. Both remain available online in clerk of court records.

In 2005, a circuit court judge issued a temporary injunction after a woman alleged that Spicer choked her with a shirt. The woman dismissed her petition, but in 2008, she filed a new one and said she dropped the earlier petition out of concern for Spicer’s professional image.

Spicer denied the woman’s claim. USA TODAY could not reach her for comment.

Spicer, who was a player for Jacksonville when the petitions were filed, said the Jaguars were aware of the issue because the team’s head of security was with him when he received the legal paperwork for the first one.

Jacksonville hired him as an assistant coach in 2011, and he joined Tampa Bay’s staff in 2015. Spicer said the petitions for orders of protection were not a factor in either job interview.

“Knowing what I know in the NFL, when it comes to their security and how they go about it, it’s one of those deals where when they ask you a question, they already have the answer. They’re just looking for you to be honest about it,” Spicer said. “I don’t think they saw anything in my background as a threat.”  

Experts recommend thorough background reviews  

Oakland hired Slate as a strength and conditioning assistant in early 2018. A routine background check shows arrests on charges of violating a domestic violence injunction, trespassing and battery.

Public records in Florida show police were called about domestic disputes at least a half-dozen times over a decade. Three calls resulting in Slate’s arrest. Charges were dropped in all three cases. 

The woman received at least five temporary orders of protection, according to court and police records.

During those years, Slate had long stints as a strength coach for baseball’s Marlins, Mets and Braves.

Records show Rick Slate was arrested in domestic disputes.
Records show Rick Slate was arrested in domestic disputes.

Major League Baseball did not have a domestic violence policy until 2015, which falls after the most recent public records involving Slate. Like the NFL, individual teams are responsible for vetting coaches, an MLB official said.

Checking references with previous employers and collecting publicly available documents on candidates is only a first step in vetting. Experts said that although the NFL and teams should not pressure women in these cases to talk to them, they should seek out their perspectives, if they’re willing to talk.

“I do think that we should ask, but it is not [the women's] responsibility, and we should ask in a way that's, ‘Do you have anything that you would like to say to this?’ ” said Ruth Glenn, president and CEO of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Experts cautioned that firing a person with a history of domestic violence might not be the best response. The loss of livelihood could spark further violence against a victim or financial support he might provide her.

They pointed to the need to offer resources and referrals to experts or domestic violence advocates. 

That understanding is part of a cultural change for the NFL that takes time, experts said. While that’s ongoing, it puts more emphasis on vetting candidates before teams hire them to make the best assessment about past behavior before going forward.

“To be a head coach in the NFL is both, it's an honor, but it's also an enormous responsibility,” said Jackson Katz, author of "The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help."

“If things are in your past, you should be able to openly discuss them in an interview. And the teams should clearly do the research. … It should be one of the factors that's considered in deciding whether you're hired as a coach.”

Rachel Axon is a reporter on the USA TODAY investigations team, focusing primarily on sports and gender issues. Contact her at raxon@usatoday.com or @rachelaxon.

Contributing: Clairissa Baker, Daniel Connolly, Gus Garcia-Roberts, Kristen Go, Clark Kauffman, Jen Killin-Guadarrama, John Kelly, Ryan Martin, Carlos Monarrez, Jorge Ortiz, Nick Penzenstadler, Spencer Remoquillo, Patrick Riley, Doug Schneider, Paul Skrbina, Seth Soffian, Josh Susong and Matt Wynn   

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL and domestic violence after Ray Rice: Coaches hired with red flags

What to Read Next