Good luck, Lisa Friel.
Amid the maelstrom of a crisis spinning out of control, commissioner Roger Goodell turned to the former New York sex crimes prosecutor as a conduct czar – assigned to advise him on criminal and behavioral issues, including Adrian Peterson's case. "Friel's emphasis will be on the evaluation process of incidents of alleged domestic violence and sexual assault," Goodell wrote to owners this week. "She will advise me and our staff on disciplinary matters involving violations of law or of the Personal Conduct Policy."
Friel will have help from fellow appointees Jane Randel and Rita Smith – both with significant backgrounds in domestic violence prevention – and Anna Isaacson, an NFL vice president whose role expanded. Yet Friel's particular job is next-to-impossible: to consider the legal system she knows from 28 years in the Manhattan district attorney's office, to respect victims who have been largely ignored by the NFL's old boy network, and to somehow rehabilitate Goodell's shattered credibility without enabling him.
The league has proven itself inept at understanding abuse and figuring out punishments for various misdeeds. Both need to be addressed urgently. And just because Friel is a woman doesn't mean she gets a pass; social media and mainstream media will be justifiably skeptical of her every move. (A request to interview Friel was not accommodated.)
It's hard to know where to begin delineating Friel's task, so let's start with Wednesday's news: the Minnesota Vikings reversed an earlier decision to play Peterson this weekend against the New Orleans Saints. Instead, the team has re-deactivated the star running back. "We made a mistake," owner Zygi Wilf said, "and we needed to get this right."
Except Wilf and the Vikings never explained what they got wrong:
It turned out to be the same thing the Baltimore Ravens got wrong in the Ray Rice situation: a total lack of awareness of how domestic abuse works. Goodell invited Rice's wife, Janay Palmer, into a meeting and then heeded her pleas for her husband's career. Had he learned more about domestic violence before this discussion, he would have known that it was a bad idea to ask Palmer to speak in front of Rice. He also would have known that victims often want to make things easy on their abusers out of fear of future violence. Goodell should have been more aware of the danger. He didn't learn his lesson until it was far too late.
Same thing in Minneapolis: child abusers often claim the harm they've done was accidental. Jordan Riak, who founded the group Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education, wrote in an essay on spanking, "'Accidental' is the child-abuser's all-weather alibi." Sure enough, Peterson claimed he didn't mean to injure his child so severely. The Vikings bought it, and parroted it in general manager Rick Spielman's disaster of a news conference announcing Peterson's reinstatement.
That night, another story emerged of Peterson allegedly hitting another child on the forehead. Peterson was cleared in that incident, but once again his rationale was telling. He texted the boy's mother that the child wouldn't hold still: "be still n [and] take ya [your] whopping, he would have saved the scare [scar]."
Peterson was blaming the victim.
This doesn't prove Peterson is a serial abuser. It proves that the Vikings had no idea what they were dealing with, and didn't try hard enough (or at all) to find out. They trusted their star implicitly without considering the victim's situation. Teams can say they're against domestic violence, but until they really understand domestic violence, their words are null and void.
Which brings us back to Friel, who has spent many years studying these subjects. Ideally, when the next abuse occurs, she will convey (or at least understand) the victim's perspective instead of blindly abiding by the win-at-all-costs perspective that's been the NFL's wobbly crutch.
Her track record isn't spotless on this subject, either. Just Wednesday, the New York Daily News reported on Friel being "ripped" for her role as a private consultant in a sex abuse probe last year. "The lawyer representing 34 men who claim Yeshiva officials covered up the sex abuse allegations says the university used Friel and her investigators as 'unwitting cogs' in an ongoing conspiracy to conceal the abuse.'"
Part of Friel's job is to avoid being an unwitting cog in Goodell's plans to restore his reputation.
As if all that wasn't enough, Friel has to help the league figure out a reliable standard for punishment in these cases. And it's safe to say such a standard does not exist. Ray Rice was given a two-game suspension, then Goodell wrote his letter to owners announcing a six-game suspension for first-time offenders, and then Rice was suspended indefinitely. Meanwhile, Carolina Panthers defensive lineman Greg Hardy was found guilty of domestic violence and hasn't been suspended at all. (He took a voluntary leave of absence on Wednesday.) Ray McDonald, the San Francisco 49ers defensive linemen who was arrested for assaulting his pregnant girlfriend, still awaits legal proceedings. He will be playing Sunday.
So what's the policy? If the league (or a team) suspends for an arrest, there's risk of false accusation. That's rare in domestic violence cases, but Friel knows police officers are hardly error-proof in their judgments. If the league waits for legal proceedings, there's a chance a player's lawyer will wrangle delays out of an already-lethargic legal system. Then there's the risk of a violent offender playing on Sundays and the social media mob blasting a team all season long.
The current middle ground is deactivation, which has its own perils. How long will Hardy sit? Or Peterson? Or Rice, who is appealing his league punishment? One game feels like far too little, but what if Hardy is found innocent after losing a year of his career? Then there's the timing issue. Rice and Hardy were arrested during the offseason. What happens if a star is arrested two nights before the Super Bowl? That deactivation measure is not going to go over well with a team playing for a championship. It's nice to think that Friel will have time to sift through the details of each case, but some decisions will have to be made faster than Judge Judy.
The NFL needs awareness, it needs credibility and it needs a plan. The conduct czar and her new colleagues have to assist with all three, and quickly. The NFL's problems are clearly not going to solve themselves.