NFL teams cut rate of second chances for players charged with domestic violence

·14 min read

WARNING: This story contains graphic descriptions of violence.

Minnesota Vikings cornerback Jeff Gladney strangled his girlfriend, pulled her hair, dragged her across the ground and struck her with a closed fist, causing visible injuries April 2, according to a police affidavit filed in Dallas.

He faces a criminal charge of felony assault and has not yet entered a plea in court. But will it cost him his job in the NFL?

The answer as of this week is no from the Vikings, who have kept him on the roster after selecting him in the first round of the NFL draft last year.

By contrast, the Seattle Seahawks didn’t believe Chad Wheeler deserved a second chance. They cut him from the team the same day he was charged with felony assault in January against Alleah Taylor, his then-girlfriend. Wheeler, an undrafted offensive tackle, has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled for trial in August.

Alleah Taylor was hospitalized with multiple injuries after her attack.
Alleah Taylor was hospitalized with multiple injuries after her attack.

Taylor told USA TODAY Sports that Wheeler should not be allowed to play football again after she said he broke her arm and gave her a concussion.

“I don’t think it would be the best choice for him to go back to football, just seeing how violent the attack was,” Taylor said. “I don’t think it would be good for him or healthy for him to go back to a violent sport where he’s paid for that.”

Both cases highlight a longtime risk calculation in the NFL with domestic violence — a calculus that’s taken a new twist since the Ray Rice elevator video went viral in September 2014. NFL teams have drastically reduced the rate of second chances for players arrested in domestic violence cases after that video rocked the league with brutal footage of the NFL player knocking out his then-fiancée.

Before the Rice video, about 85% of NFL players arrested or charged in domestic violence cases got second chances in the league afterward — 80 of 93, including those later convicted or cleared of crimes, according to an analysis of incidents in the USA TODAY Sports database of 1,007 NFL player arrests and citations since January 2000.

After the Rice video, only about half have gotten second chances — 17 of 33.

Not surprisingly, teams still appear to be making decisions about whether to give such players second chances based on how valuable those players are on the field. Beyond that, other concerns have emerged as NFL teams continue to weigh what to do in these situations:

From the perspective of survivors, will wives and girlfriends who suffer such abuse be even less likely to report it or cooperate with investigators out of concern that it will kill the lucrative careers of those players?

Domestic violence long has been an under-reported crime, and a loss of employment could encourage retaliation against those who report it. In 2018, NFL defensive lineman Roy Miller blamed his wife for his decision to quit the NFL after his arrest on domestic violence charges the previous November. After the NFL suspended him six games, he said he received interest from teams to keep playing but decided against it.

NFL player arrests database: Records since 2000

“I am officially retiring from the NFL," Miller wrote on Instagram. "Unfortunately my ex is trying everything she can to ruin any opportunity for me to work for my kids.”

His ex-wife declined comment when reached by USA TODAY Sports.

From the perspective of players, what about those who get cut by a team after such an arrest but are later cleared of charges? Since 2017, at least three players haven't played in the league again despite having their domestic cases being dismissed without punishment.

“Survivors' needs aren't one-size-fits-all, and zero-tolerance policies shouldn't be the only option for accountability, because they may harm survivors or discourage reporting,” said Deborah J. Vagins, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

Second chances generally are decided by teams, not the league office, and team tolerance can vary. Ask Mark Davis, owner of the Las Vegas Raiders.

'It destroyed us’

Davis has strong feelings about players accused of beating up women.

He generally rejects them, especially if they are convicted of such crimes. He also quickly shot down a question from USA TODAY Sports about whether he’d ever consider giving Wheeler a second chance. He said he’s passed on such players in the past for similar reasons, even if a player’s talent might appeal to team general manager Mike Mayock or coach Jon Gruden.

“We’ve paid the price for it. … But it’s just an absolute no for me,” Davis said. “As much as Mike and Jon hate to hear that, they do respect it.”

Ex-Seattle offensive tackle Chad Wheeler
Ex-Seattle offensive tackle Chad Wheeler

His stance stems from the death of Tracey Biletnikoff, the 20-year-old daughter of legendary Raiders receiver Fred Biletnikoff. In 1999, her boyfriend strangled her and dumped her dead body in a ravine in Redwood City, California.

The Raiders have supported a foundation in her honor and have had only one player arrested for suspected domestic violence since Davis became the controlling owner in 2011, according to the database. That player was pass rusher Aldon Smith, who was released by the team in March 2018, two days after his fiancée allegedly suffered non-life-threatening injuries in a domestic incident.

Smith later pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges and was required to attend domestic violence counseling. He also had been investigated for domestic violence the year before, but it did not result in an arrest.

Raiders owner Mark Davis
Raiders owner Mark Davis

“I saw how that can tear a whole family apart,” Davis said of the Biletnikoffs. “And I’m talking the whole Raider family. It destroyed us. I don’t want to have anything to be a part of that, or overlooking an opportunity for it to happen.”

Other teams have had different responses to cases that vary in circumstance, supporting evidence and the talent level of the accused.

For example, the Denver Broncos led the NFL with 12 domestic violence arrests from 2000 to 2010, including three players arrested at least twice, according to the database. One was wide receiver Brandon Marshall, who was arrested three times in alleged domestic incidents from March 2007 to March 2009.

Former Broncos and Seahawks WR Brandon Marshall
Former Broncos and Seahawks WR Brandon Marshall

Back then, NFL teams were not nearly as sensitive to such allegations.

“I think Brandon is going through a maturing process," Broncos owner Pat Bowlen said in The Denver Post in early 2010, explaining how he hoped Marshall would stay with his team.

Marshall’s first arrest came in March 2007, when he was accused of false imprisonment of his girlfriend and later required to attend an anger management course. The other two domestic incidents resulted in acquittal or dropped charges, which is common in domestic violence cases, often because the woman declines to cooperate with the investigation after the initial arrest.

By March 2012, Marshall had tallied at least nine alleged domestic violence incidents overall, including several that resulted in no arrest because of lack of evidence. But Marshall still had a market for his services after that as a six-time Pro Bowl player. He last played for the Seattle Seahawks in 2018.

That wasn’t the case with New York Giants safety Kamrin Moore, who was cleared of domestic violence allegations by a judge and grand jury but never got another chance in the NFL after his arrest in 2019, nearly five years after the Rice video changed the equation.

Ray Rice video a seminal moment

To provide context on conduct issues that have vexed the league, USA TODAY Sports has tracked arrests and criminal citations of active NFL players since 2000 — at least 1,007 overall, though some incidents avoid detection or come to light later. The database does not include NFL suspensions or investigations that did not involve criminal arrests or charges, such as the domestic violence case of Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott in 2016.

Misdemeanor cases make up an overwhelming portion of it, often resulting from traffic stops, with drunk driving remaining the league’s biggest criminal problem — about 25% of all arrests.

Both the NFL and independent experts have noted that the overall NFL arrest rate is significantly lower than that of the general population. With domestic violence, the NFL arrest rate also has gone down to less than five per year since the Rice video, compared to more six per year before then, according to the database.

Ex-NFL running back Ray Rice
Ex-NFL running back Ray Rice

That brutal video marked a seminal moment for a reason: It showed the world just how lenient the league had been about domestic violence, sparking public outrage. After Rice was arrested in that incident in February 2014, the NFL had suspended him for only two games, which was a typical punishment at the time for players who abused women. The video of that incident did not go public until TMZ aired it nearly seven months later, showing the world what domestic violence looked like — and how the league had thought it only merited a mere two-game ban.

“I got it wrong in the handling of the Ray Rice matter, and I’m sorry for that,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said later that year.

Since then, the league increased the baseline punishment for first-time offenders up to six games, beefed up education and effectively turned allegations of domestic violence into a much more serious stigma. No team since then wanted Rice, who never got a second chance. Teams also were quicker to dump players arrested on such charges, without due process, with notable exceptions made for Pro Bowl players or top draft picks.

“It’s a very sensitive subject,” NFL player agent Eugene Lee told USA TODAY Sports. “You don’t want a charge of that nature associated with you and your name, especially given the environment we’re in now. It’s very difficult, even if the charges are false. It’s very difficult to overcome that stigma, and rightly so. They are heinous charges.”

Lee would know. One of his clients was Moore, who was accused of knocking a woman unconscious in July 2019. Those charges were unsubstantiated, and the injuries in the case came from a fight between his girlfriend and another woman Moore knew — but not Moore, Lee said. It didn’t matter to NFL teams. He never got another sniff of interest after that. Would he if he hadn’t been arrested?

Aldon Smith
Aldon Smith

“Given the value of his position in today’s league, there would have been at least workouts” by teams, Lee said. “And I’m pretty sure there would have been a futures contract.”

Of the 17 players who got second chances after being arrested or charged in the post-Rice era, six were Pro Bowl selections or former first-round draft picks or both, including Aldon Smith, who got another chance in Dallas last year after the Raiders cut him loose.

Of the 16 players who did not get second chances after such domestic incidents in the post-Rice era, none were Pro Bowl players or first-round draft picks, except quarterback Johnny Manziel, who already had been exposed as a bust at the time of his incident in 2016.

Moore, a former sixth-round draft pick, was deemed expendable by the Giants. By contrast, the Miami Dolphins stuck with Xavien Howard, a Pro Bowl cornerback, after his arrest in late 2019.

'Don’t call the cops’

Howard had been arrested and charged with battery after allegedly pushing his fiancée, who had scratches, redness and abrasions on her arm, according to police. The woman also described a pattern of abuse and noted the pressure to keep quiet because he was a famous football player, according to a recording of the woman’s call to 911, which was published by TMZ.

“So every time a situation happens it's always like, 'Oh, don't do this.' Or, 'Oh, well, you'll be OK. Don't call the cops,’ ’’ the woman said on the call.

The woman ultimately decided not to cooperate with the prosecution, causing the case to be dismissed. The NFL did not suspend him. The Dolphins kept him on the team, and he had another Pro Bowl season in 2020 with a league-leading 10 interceptions.

This is a common problem with domestic violence investigations — the reluctance of accusers to cooperate if they even dare to get police involved. Between 2006 and 2015, police were notified in only about 56% of the 1.3 million non-fatal domestic violence victimizations that occurred each year, according to a report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The same report stated an average of nearly 600,000 non-fatal domestic violence victimizations went unreported each year during that period, including 21% that were not reported because the victim wanted to protect the offender, and 19% that were not reported because of fear of reprisal from the offender or others.

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“There are a variety of valid reasons why victims and survivors of domestic violence may not disclose the abuse they’ve experienced, and it’s so important for professional sports leagues like the NFL to create environments where players’ partners feel comfortable coming forward about issues like domestic violence, without fearing that the player’s career will be over or that he might retaliate,” said Vagins of the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

“Survivors deserve safety, confidentiality and support in whatever way they decide is most helpful. In some cases, that may mean a partner's career ends as a result of his actions. In other cases, that may mean a partner can resume his career once his penalty is over.”

But employing players is still a team decision. And teams are less likely to let a domestic violence suspect resume his career after Rice.

Jeff Gladney
Jeff Gladney

After the arrest of Gladney, who started 15 games last year, the Vikings said they take the matter seriously "as the reported allegations are extremely disturbing." Team general manager Rick Spielman also said, "We're letting the due process take its course."

By contrast, Wheeler was a backup who played in only five games in 2020. Shortly after his arrest, the Seahawks released a statement saying, “Our thoughts and support are with the victim. Chad is a free agent and no longer with the team.”

He likely will not play in the NFL again as he deals with acknowledged mental health issues. Taylor, his former girlfriend, has cooperated with investigators, including from the NFL. She said she knew him only about six months before he allegedly choked her and beat her in January.

Taylor said she’s since been healing from her injuries and agreed to talk about her case because she recognizes the need to break the cycle of silence. In 2015, for example, Wheeler was detained by police in another incident while in college at Southern California. In that incident, Wheeler was described as punching walls and “disorderly” as he barricaded inside an apartment with a woman and her young son. He ended up being taken to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.

If more had been known about this incident, Taylor might have avoided Wheeler.

Alleah Taylor is recovering from her attack.
Alleah Taylor is recovering from her attack.

“I would love for people to be more mindful of what happened and just how quick those things can happen,” Taylor told USA TODAY Sports. “And I want people to be more mindful of domestic violence. ... In 2015, this happened with him, but we can’t find information about what happened with the girl in the apartment.

"I feel like oftentimes it’s hard for people to know what happened or to seek help if they’re silent and things like that. I just want people to continue to rally around people who chose to speak up, because it takes a lot of courage. And it’s a lot of pressure, especially when people are up against public figures.”

It's also scary. If Wheeler's case isn't resolved before trial, Taylor is prepared to testify against him and face him in court. The trial is scheduled for Aug. 26 in King County, Washington.

"If it does go to that extent, then yes, I would be willing to," she said. "It's very terrifying, I will admit."

Contributing: Nancy Armour

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail:

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL players charged with domestic violence seeing fewer second chances