NFL failing at more than just discipline in its domestic violence policy

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The focus of the outrage over NFL players accused of domestic violence-related crimes has been about punishment. That’s understandable, as domestic violence is a scourge on our society and it’s almost never an isolated incident or “mistake.” But it’s clear the NFL is not only failing at discipline, it is also failing at rehabilitation. That should be of more concern to the league and to the communities in which NFL players live.

The latest perpetrator is Josh Brown, the New York Giants kicker who was arrested in May 2015 on domestic abuse charges, and was suspended for only a game this season. This punishment came after an incident in January at the Pro Bowl, where his ex-wife, Molly, called security after Brown pounded on her door in the middle of the night. The NFL helped her move rooms, but that still didn’t lead to anything more than a one-game suspension.

The NFL is reopening its investigation of Giants kicker Josh Brown. (AP)
The NFL is reopening its investigation of Giants kicker Josh Brown. (AP)

To rail against this leniency is appropriate, just as it’s appropriate to rail against the non-suspension of Bruce Miller, the former San Francisco 49ers fullback who plead no contest to vandalism in an incident involving his girlfriend in 2015. In August, Miller was arrested for allegedly assaulting an elderly man with a deadly weapon: the man’s cane. Miller, like Brown, was allowed to play through his troubles before the latest incident.

It’s not just that the NFL knew and did little. It’s also that the player – the person – was not treated successfully. The punishment, or lack thereof, is usually tied closely to the legal outcome of a case, when the way forward for a player should be more intricately tied to evidence of an anger management or abusive behavior issue. Miller pleaded only to a misdemeanor, but that was not a sign of a minor problem. One Bay Area report quoted Miller’s counselor through a mandatory 16-week rehabilitation program, who said the 49er “struggled with setting appropriate boundaries with family, friends, and his victim. He feels implementing and adhering consistently to health boundaries will continue to be challenging.”

That was a red flag: Miller was not all better, even after a season’s worth of counseling. It should have been a clear sign to the NFL and the 49ers that it wasn’t yet time for him to refocus on football.

The same could be said of Miller’s former teammate, Ray McDonald, who played for Jim Harbaugh after a domestic violence arrest in August 2014. He was not charged, and that was enough of a reason to keep him on the field. But something was amiss, and not enough was done about it. In December, news outlets reported McDonald was investigated for a sexual assault, and the team cut him. Still he got another chance with the Chicago Bears in 2015 before being arrested on domestic abuse and child endangerment charges. McDonald had a serious problem, and football was either impeding him or not helping him heal. He’s now out of football. So is Miller, most likely for good.

And so perhaps is former Dallas Cowboy Greg Hardy. Eight months after a North Carolina judge convicted him for domestic violence in 2014, the Cowboys gave him a $13.1 million contract. Team executive vice president Charlotte Jones Anderson &ndash: Jerry Jones’ daughter – sounded compassionate when she told the Dallas Morning News, “The experts have told us it is far better to provide a way out, coupled with educational and rehabilitative services and therapy. That does more to protect the victim and prevent future violence than a zero-tolerance policy. We have to trust the advice of the experts.” Yet the Cowboys failed on that measure, as Hardy continued to make inappropriate comments in interviews and even got into an argument with a Cowboys coach during a game. Dallas let him go and last month he was arrested on a cocaine possession charge in Texas.

“I think you will look back,” Anderson said at the time of Hardy’s signing, “and you will say this is the right move for the Cowboys.” It was not the right move for the Cowboys, and it was not the right move for Hardy either.

Former San Francisco 49er Bruce Miller is facing seven Miller with seven felony charges over an incident involving the assault of an elderly man. (AP)
Former San Francisco 49er Bruce Miller is facing seven Miller with seven felony charges over an incident involving the assault of an elderly man. (AP)

Now there is a mutual failure in the Brown case. The Giants knew enough and didn’t do enough. But a two-game or a four-game suspension would probably not have helped either. People like Brown, and McDonald, and Hardy, are sick. The question on the minds of the league, the team and the media should be, “How sick is this person?” instead of simply, “How wayward is this player?” Suspensions and terminations have a purpose, but it’s only part of the treatment needed to protect victims in the present and future.

“I became an abuser and hurt Molly physically, emotionally and verbally,” Brown wrote in a letter to friends and family in 2014. Giants owner John Mara said Brown “certainly” told the team as well. Admission is a major step in rehabilitation, and that’s to Brown’s credit, but consistent actions must follow. A commitment to getting better has to be obvious to those in an abuser’s orbit, and too often coaches and executives look only for a commitment to football.

When Cowboys coach Jason Garrett was asked about Hardy’s character in the months leading up to his team debut, he said, “I think he’s an intense person. I think he cares a great deal about football. I think he wants to be the right kind of guy and what we’re going to do is we’re going to try to approach this thing on a day-by-day basis.” Caring a great deal about football has nothing to do with caring a great deal about healing. In fact, the former can interfere with the latter.

This is the central problem with football culture: It’s a culture about football. A man can be broken as long as he seems whole on the field of a violent sport. It should not be this way. A good psychologist on every team staff can spend an hour with a troubled player and determine if he wants to be whole, or if he’s saying something or writing something just to get back on the field. This should be the true test of rehabilitation: the kind of commitment to healing that every coach wants to see in a player’s commitment to winning.

Yes, there are some players who cannot be helped. There are some people who will spiral and never get better. Maybe nothing can be done for Josh Brown. But as long as football has the highest priority, rather than true rehabilitation, the NFL’s image will continue to suffer along with the people it fails to assist.

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