Nearly four years after Ray Rice was caught assaulting his partner on video, the league only provides lip service to violence against women
Before Robert Mueller investigated Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential election, he investigated the National Football League’s handling of the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice, who in 2014 knocked out his then-fiancee at an Atlantic City casino. Mueller issued a 65-page report in January 2015, offering a number of steps the league could have taken to investigate the incident and those it could take in the future. Almost four years later, it’s debatable whether the NFL heeded any of Mueller’s advice, a state of affairs that has been highlighted by high-profile cases in the past month. And the reasons for the NFL’s inaction point back to profit and apathy.
Perhaps the most striking case is that of the Kansas City Chiefs’ Kareem Hunt, who was caught on a video published by TMZ last week shoving and kicking a 19-year-old woman. The Chiefs and the NFL had known about the incident (which was not domestic violence as the woman in question was not Hunt’s partner) since it had occurred in February, but the player had not faced any discipline. The Chiefs took Hunt at his word that he had nothing to do with it, while the NFL did not speak to Hunt or the woman he assaulted and told the Chiefs to stop pursuing video. It was only after the video surfaced on TMZ that the NFL placed him on the exempt list (players on the list cannot practice with their teams but are still paid) and the Chiefs cut him loose. Hunt was one of the most effective running backs in the league, and it’s not outlandish to wonder whether the Chiefs would have stuck with a less talented player for so long.
“They got an enormous amount of benefit out of keeping him despite the fact that he had done that and this video was out there,” says Deborah Epstein, co-director of the Georgetown University Law Center’s Domestic Violence Clinic.
She points out that TMZ, which also published the Rice video, appears to have more of a handle on the situation than the NFL. “What football needs to do is essentially is hire TMZ as their investigative arm because the NFL keeps saying, ‘We have no way of knowing about this. We don’t know about any of these videos,’” Epstein said. “But TMZ keeps finding them.”
For those incidents not caught on video, the punishment appears to be a slap on the wrist. The San Francisco 49ers Reuben Foster was arrested twice this year for domestic violence against his ex-girlfriend Elissa Ennis, most recently in late November, before the team let him go. In the most recent incident, Ellis alleges Foster left her bruised and concussed.
Within days, Washington picked Foster up, with the team’s senior vice-president of player personnel, Doug Williams, claiming the incident was “small potatoes” and that he had investigated the matter. Williams later admitted “never in my life have I said something so insensitive”. But for victims, it shows how little football cares. In an interview with ABC News, Elissa said Foster’s move to Washington was like a “slap in the face.”
“[Foster] suffered no serious consequences to his career,” Epstein says. “As long as we’re going to continue to have that be the message that underlies the talk about no tolerance, we are not going to seriously reduce domestic violence in the NFL.”
Since the Ray Rice incident, the NFL has required a certain number of hours of domestic violence training every year. “But there are no data that shows that short-term, infrequent intervention can actually have an impact on recidivist abuse,” Epstein says.
In June, Epstein and another colleague quit the NFL Players Association’s commission on domestic violence, claiming that the association was simply playing lip service to the issue. There are easy actions the NFL and players association could take. They could release the findings of the report by Epstein and research psychologist Lisa Goodman, which detailed “concrete, implementable ways in which the players association and the league could help support women in situations where domestic violence is a risk or a reality” as suggested by wives of NFL players.
While Epstein can’t discuss the findings of that report due to a confidentiality agreement she signed, she does have other suggestions for the NFL. Epstein suggests equitable punishments, so that players guilty of domestic violence aren’t serving less than those who have tampered with the air pressure of a football. Kathy Redmond of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes says the league could set up a fund for victims who are too fearful to leave abusive relationships with NFL players due to financial reasons – a reality far too many of these women face, she says. Redmond also says the league could institute mandatory treatment plans for players guilty of domestic violence and make it a part of their contracts – much like rehabilitation for an ACL tear is included in a contract.
It’s not like other leagues haven’t made progress on this front. The NFL could follow the route of Australia’s AFL, which after a series of high-profile incidents in 2004, tackled the issue by delivering an annual education program for players and strengthened their anti-sexual harassment and discrimination procedures.
So why is the NFL only providing lip service to violence against women? “Apathy,” says Redmond. As much as the NFL is a sports league, it is also a business – a behemoth at that, with billions of dollars made in ad revenue, deals with cable companies, and sales of tickets and gear. As Bloomberg reporters so eloquently put it: “It’s the largest single entertainment property in the US, a $14bn per year attention-sucking machine with a steady hold on the lives of tens of millions.”
For the image of the NFL and the teams themselves, it’s easier to sweep violence against women under the rug and keep the best players on the field despite their records. It’s easier for PR teams to try to protect players and minimize the incident, and to hope victims don’t press charges.
When Ennis called 911 on Foster the second time, she says the police didn’t initially believe her, and alleges that the 49ers tried to protect Foster by casting doubt on her character. “Even when I called the police, the 49ers came up there,” Ennis told ABC News. “I have pictures of the 49ers coming up there trying to talk to the police telling them I’m the same ex-girlfriend that set up there and lied.” (Ennis had recanted her statement about Foster attacking her in the first incident in February, telling ABC News she lied on the stand to protect Foster out of love and a belief he could change.)
The 49ers, for their part, deny they tried to interfere. “The 49ers fully cooperated with authorities, assisted in locating Mr Foster and in no way impeded their investigation,” the team said in a statement.
Redmond did not comment on Ennis’s story specifically but alleges players have been helped by the league and law enforcement. “The power the NFL has over law enforcement in each of these franchise cities is unreal,” Redmond says, noting that she’s spoken with detectives who say “[law enforcement] usually work with the player to get them out of trouble.”
It often seems that only video evidence forces the NFL and its teams to take a victim of domestic violence seriously. Even when action is taken, the league hopes the public’s memory will fade. “[The NFL] wait it out, because fans have a very short attention span,” says Redmond. “There is no financial reason for them to not continue the status quo.”
Instead, if change is to come, fans are going to have to take action. “So painful as it’s going to be, we’re going to have to boycott teams who fail to meet basic standards of human decency,” Epstein says. “So as a society we have to certainly send the message that hiring and retaining players who are perpetrators of violence will result in harm to their bottom line.”
Shaming the NFL into better behavior has not worked; that was made crystal clear when Washington signed Foster. Time will tell whether viewers will be able to make the commitment to demand better from the NFL with their wallets.