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The same weekend the NFL settled in for its conference championship round, a little-known Seattle Seahawks offensive lineman stands accused of an act of violence so horrific it still seems incomprehensible.
The chilling account from the King County police report begins with Chad Wheeler asking his girlfriend to literally bow to him. When she did not, the 6ft 7in, 310lb lineman threw her on a bed and strangled her until she lost consciousness. When she came to, Wheeler was stunned. “Wow, you’re alive?” he reportedly said.
According to authorities, the alleged victim, Wheeler’s girlfriend, called 911 to report that she was being “killed” after escaping Wheeler’s clutches and locking herself in a bathroom.
When police arrived on the scene, they heard screaming and forced their way into the bathroom, where they found the victim bleeding with a dislocated arm, Wheeler hovering over her. The pictures of Wheeler’s girlfriend, who is black, bruised and battered in the hospital, certainly corroborate her story, a story far too common among all women. And especially women of color, who are up to 50% more likely than white women to be victims of gender-based violence, according to the CDC’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey.
The police report states that Wheeler was on bipolar medication but had not been taking it as of late. Wheeler took to Twitter to apologize to his girlfriend for what he called a “manic episode”. The mental health aspect will and should be examined over time, though in no way should excuse a crime so heinous.
Once the news became widespread and public pressure mounted, the Seahawks finally released Wheeler, a backup player, and put out a boilerplate statement about being “saddened” by his actions. Not outraged or horrified. Just sad.
As has become custom, the NFL offered no substantial response, instead stating that they were reviewing the case under the league’s personal conduct policy – as if they’re the ones who need legal protection.
What the Seahawks and NFL should have said is something to the effect of any player proven to commit an act of domestic violence will immediately be banned from football. There’s no reason the league can’t offer a path back to the field if the perpetrator undergoes a series of rehabilitation protocols, especially since the effectiveness of zero-tolerance policies is debatable. But for the victims tormented by these players, for the millions of people that are victims of gender-based violence every day, the league’s first response should be legitimate punishment. For any player. Not just the ones we haven’t heard of.
Except the NFL cannot credibly make these kinds of declarations. In the months following the infamous Ray Rice video of 2014 and after much public shaming, the NFL finally appeared to turn a corner and take this issue seriously. They updated their personal conduct policy to include a template six-game suspension for an act of violence, subject to more or less severity based on an investigation performed by NFL-hired investigators. They sent domestic violence experts to clubs to education players and staff, claiming it would be an annual training. The players union formed a commission of domestic violence experts.
But within two years, the trainings stopped, the punishments doled out to offending players were illogical and inconsistent, and two of the enlisted experts quit the commission due to inaction. Deborah Epstein, co-director of Georgetown Law’s domestic violence clinic called the commission a “fig leaf”.
Through it all the NFL just let the gender-based violence become a side issue as they moved on to other issues they considered more immediately pressing to their bottom line, like peacefully protesting players and how to squeeze in a season amid a pandemic.
Next Sunday, the entire world will witness the results of league’s hypocrisy and inaction when it comes to gender-based violence and sexual assault.
Emerging from one tunnel on Super Bowl Sunday will be Kansas City Chiefs star wideout Tyreek Hill. Fans in person or watching the television will get chills thinking about his superhuman speed and big-play ability. But will they get a different sensation when they recall of Hill’s history of violence, which includes punching his pregnant girlfriend in the stomach in college (for which he pleaded guilty and received probation) to being accused of abusing their 3-year-old son (which he denied) and threatening his fiancée in April 2019 (for which prosecutors did not press charges)? Hill was suspended from team activities and the NFL investigated the case for four months. But somehow the league cited a lack of evidence and concluded that Hill could rejoin the Chiefs just in time for training camp. He didn’t miss a game.
Cascading out of the other tunnel will be Tampa Bay Buccaneers wideout Antonio Brown, who has such a long history of disturbing behavior, the misconduct could fill the pages of a Dostoyevsky novel. Brown was suspended for eight games this season after multiple accusations of sexual assault from multiple women and sending threatening messages to one of them. Despite all the stomach-turning details, including the allegation of rape in a civil suit, Tom Brady and the Bucs welcomed Brown with open arms the moment they were able.
The NFL does its part to gloss over the pasts of this men, almost with what feels like a dose of intentionality. Brown and Hill, along with the Chiefs’ Frank Clark, the Lions’ Adrian Peterson, the Browns’ Kareem Hunt and many others have been welcome on NFL rosters after facing allegations of violence against women or children. Their jerseys remain for sale. Broadcast booths water down their realities. Instead of announcing that “Adrian Peterson is returning after being charged with child abuse and allegedly beating his son’s genitals with a tree branch, they might say, “Adrian Peterson is returning from suspension after violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy.”
If the NFL is going to allow these men to take the field again, at the very least it ought to concurrently use it vast platform to educate its fanbase about the disturbing prevalence of gender-based violence. How one in four women will experience severe gender-based violence from an intimate partner in her lifetime. How nearly 20 people every minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States.
Wheeler will likely never play another NFL down; he might end up in jail for any or all of the crimes with which he’s now been formally charged – first-degree domestic violence assault, domestic violence unlawful imprisonment and resisting arrest. (His arraignment, where he is expected to enter a plea, is scheduled for Monday.) He’s an easy one for the league to cast aside and use as an example of taking gender-based violence seriously. But if you’re exceptionally gifted at football, the NFL will almost always find a place for you no matter what you do in your spare time. Unless, of course, it’s fighting police brutality and racial injustice.