To protect and serve. That's the classic mission of the police officer. And it is a noble goal. But it gets complicated, and perhaps compromised, when the mission of a police officer is also to protect and serve a football team.
San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald will not be charged after his late-summer arrest for domestic violence. Prosecutors did not find sufficient evidence to pursue the case further. McDonald did not miss a game and he will continue to take the field now that due process has played out.
But what happened on the night of the incident reveals another layer in the NFL's ongoing crisis – one that a domestic violence attorney based in San Francisco says will cause a "chilling effect" on future victims.
That's because after the incident in question on Aug. 31, at a party at McDonald's home, police were called by his fiancée and they reported to the scene, only to find a colleague had already been at the residence: Sgt. Sean Pritchard.
Pritchard, who was in uniform, had already fielded two calls earlier that night. According to a San Jose Mercury News report, Pritchard was also being paid by the 49ers, and a team security official instructed him to go to McDonald's home.
This doesn't mean the case was mishandled; it doesn't mean a crime occurred, or even that Pritchard did something wrong. It shows, however, a clear example of how the relationship between football teams and law enforcement can be too cozy, and that the NFL's domestic violence problem will not be fixed until possible victims can trust both teams and the police to help them instead of protecting and serving sports heroes.
"This case confirms all the worst fears," said Bay Area domestic violence attorney Nicole Ford. "[McDonald] has power and money; he can call the cops before the actual cops show up."
According to police reports, McDonald's fiancée hit her partner with a closed fist, and then he tried to restrain her, causing "visible injuries." At one point, the report stated, "he grabbed her neck."
McDonald called Pritchard and said, "I need to get this female out of my house."
Two minutes later, McDonald's fiancée called 911 to report domestic violence.
The San Jose police investigated the matter and, according to the Mercury News, "internal emails portrayed a tight relationship between a cadre of officers and the team."
Prosecutors decided Pritchard's role in the case was a "collateral issue" and the officer's involvement on the night in question does not necessarily mean the case was mishandled. Or that McDonald was guilty of a crime.
This case calls to mind the ongoing Jameis Winston saga at Florida State, where a sexual assault investigation was botched by the Tallahassee Police Department. A detective working on the Winston case sought jobs with FSU booster clubs. More than a few officers at the TPD also work security for the university on the side, making more than $100,000 last season on game days, according to a New York Times report. Some of that money came directly from booster organizations.
Wherever there is football, there are fans who also wear police uniforms, and there are often people in those uniforms who are being compensated by teams. So victims who seek help are often seeking it from people who have a vested interest in squashing potential legal crises.
Dewan Smith-Williams, the wife of former NFL player Wally Williams, told the Washington Post last month what happened when she went to the police after an alleged assault:
"When the cops would come," she told the paper, "they just said we needed some time apart, and they would talk to [Wally] about football. The police tell you, 'You don't want this in the news.' I have things that happened in my life that there is no record of."
It's frightening to wonder how many "things that happened" to wives and girlfriends of football players that were never officially reported. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, less than a quarter of the 1.3 million women attacked by partners report them to the police. That number is likely lower in the football world, where victims fear police negligence, team pressure, public backlash, and of course further attacks from a loved one. It's not simply that the incentive to report is low; it's that the incentive to keep quiet is extraordinarily high. Why call the cops when it's possible the cops will show up at the door and be excited to see the man who just beat you?
"Go ahead and call the police again," Ford said. "They didn't believe you before; they won't believe you now."
Teams often hire security because of the fear of targeting. There are men out there who want to pick a fight, and there are women out there who want to file a lawsuit. Although that fear is not unrealistic, the more likely targets are the spouses and partners of the football players. They are the ones who can do the most harm to the team by turning in their abusers. The difference between a failed season and a home playoff game is huge financially, and that trickles down to the cops directing traffic and walking the beat as fans file out of the stadium. A situation that somehow vanishes is much more lucrative to the team and the city than one that festers and ends up resulting in a suspension. Just look at the 49ers, who are above .500 with McDonald in the lineup, and the Carolina Panthers, who have spiraled with convicted domestic abuser Greg Hardy out of the lineup. Are those teams' fortunes directly tied to those two players? Probably not entirely, but there is certainly incentive to keep them in uniform.
Meanwhile, there is overwhelming incentive for a victim to keep quiet. After all, who's really on her side? Who will protect and serve her?
"Why call the cops?" Ford said. "They won't do anything. And the next time abuse happens, both the abuser and victim believe nothing will happen, further creating imbalance in the power dynamic between the couple."
We've now gone nearly two months without an arrest of an NFL player for domestic violence. It's hopeful to think players know they need to be extra vigilant in a new era of awareness. But it's just as likely that victims realize how isolated they really are.