The NFL’s Domestic Violence Policy Is Dangerous

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Commentary Violence

The NFL’s Domestic Violence Policy Is Dangerous

Jodi Jacobson

Among other things, the policy misunderstands how deeply manipulative, destructive, coercive, and dangerous abusers can be.

Read more about intimate partner violence and the Ray Rice case here.

My mother was a very fashionable woman, and she accessorized outfits with lots of cool sunglasses—the large, dramatic kind that were popular when I was growing up. There were times, however, when my mom wore sunglasses less for sun protection than as a form of self-protection. Sometimes in the fall she wore them all day to hide eyes swollen from acute bouts of hay fever. Other times she wore them in an effort to hide the black eyes and swelling that came courtesy of my father’s fists.

My father was, at 6’4″ and very broad-shouldered, an intimidating man to many people and anytime he wanted to be. My mother was 5’6″, petite.

Watching the video of Ray Rice first punching and then dragging his then fiancée, Janay Rice (née Palmer), out of an elevator in Atlantic City brought me right back to a scene from my childhood when, hearing an argument escalate between my father and mother in another part of our home, I ran downstairs to see my father dragging my unconscious mother out of the spare bedroom. I went into what I can only call my “automatic” mode: I began beating my father with my then 10-year-old fists.

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I am the oldest of four and the only girl in my natal family, part of what was then a very large extended family. In our “traditional” family, the men were supposed to be “in charge” (though the women held everything—and I mean everything—together), and they were supposed to go unchallenged no matter how wrong they were. For some reason, I was the only one who could and did stand up to my father without being beaten; my brothers on the other hand were not spared. As a result, and out of what I can only say was an inherent sense of injustice, I became my mother’s protector, a role I assumed (though I should not have had to) from the earliest time I can remember.

Being my mother’s protector meant laying awake at night after my father would come home late, waiting to hear if an argument would start and if I would have to jump in to prevent harm. It meant fearing for my mother any time I left home, whether it be to a sleepover at a friend’s house or to summer camp. It meant constant anxiety about what might happen to my mom. And it meant refusing opportunities—like a junior year abroad in college—for fear that if I did go, my mother might not be alive when I got back.

When my mother died in 1993 of what I was told was a massive heart attack, it was after a fight with my father in a restaurant, and after he made her get out of the car on a country road in the middle of winter. I never really found out what happened, though I tried incessantly to get more information from the police and from the emergency room. All I knew was that in the end I could not protect her.

My mother came from a family of extremely modest means, got married when she was 16, and had four children by the time she was 24. (She also had at least two miscarriages and one abortion.) Many times throughout my adolescence and early adulthood, I begged her to leave my father and get a divorce. “You are beautiful, smart, and strong,” I would tell her, “and you can make a life for yourself.” She refused, and I did not fully understand why until later: She was afraid of what my father would do to her, and for the safety of her kids.

She had no college degree, no job experience, and no personal wealth on which to fall back. She also knew no one would believe (or want to hear about) her abuse at the hands of my father. Too many people knew my father as the gregarious, generous guy who picked up people’s checks at restaurants, always dressed well, and (in their eyes) provided for his family. I know her fears were valid, because even after both parents had died, I could not discuss these details of my family’s past with my cousins—they either didn’t believe me, or they told me it “wasn’t my business to fix.” Nonetheless, this past followed me into adulthood in the form of severe depression that it took me years to conquer.

These early personal experiences, coupled with a career spent promoting women’s rights, make it clear to me that, in response to Ray Rice’s violence, the NFL has made and continues to make grave mistakes that are without question dangerous to Janay Rice and her daughter, as well as to countless other women and children.

In February, TMZ first released footage of Ray Rice dragging Janay out of the Atlantic City elevator. Both of them were arrested for supposedly attacking each other, though what attack Janay could have made on her fiancé with her bare hands that would have justified him punching her in the head and knocking her unconscious is beyond my comprehension.

In May, the Baltimore Ravens hosted a press conference featuring both Ray and Janay Rice, who had gotten married in the intervening months. Ray Rice begins the press conference by apologizing to everyone except his wife and speaks about “this situation” as though a piano had fallen on them out of the sky. He takes no real responsibility, and never utters the words “violence,” “assault,” or “attack.” Even more astounding (to some) is that later in the same press conference Janay Rice apologized for her “role” in “this incident,” a statement that sounds very much like something engineered by the NFL and the Ravens press teams, but one she may have believed, at least somewhat, since victims of violence are so often made to blame themselves.

The NFL first suspended Rice for two games for what NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called a “horrible mistake,” and a flood of criticism ensued, against which Goodell defended himself and the league. Later, as the criticism of Goodell, the NFL, and the Ravens continued to pour in, Goodell admitted he had “not gotten it right the first time” and put in place a new policy that includes a six-game suspension for “first offenses” and a lifetime ban for a “second incident.”

This week, Rice’s contract was terminated and he was cut from the Ravens after an extended portion of the video from his attack on his fiancée was posted by TMZ—a video we have strong reason to believe NFL and Ravens officials had seen months earlier. Though this was Rice’s “first incident” (as far as we know), the public’s access to the video and the PR disaster that resulted was just too much for the NFL to handle. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said that seeing the video “made things a little bit different.” Really? How? Seeing a woman lying unconscious on a hotel lobby floor after being dragged like a rag doll from an elevator and then kicked as though she was an inanimate object (as depicted in video release in February) wasn’t enough to convince him that Ray Rice had committed a serious offense?

Goodell, Harbaugh, and the NFL writ large have put Janay Rice and countless other women in danger with their approach to Ray Rice’s abuse and their “protect the NFL at all costs” policies. I have seen no statement from the NFL that makes clear they understand that, no matter what information or videos are or are not leaked to the public, punching Janay Rice was unacceptable. Nor have I seen a statement from the NFL decrying the fact that she was arrested in conjunction with her own abuse.

Furthermore, they participated in helping Janay Rice become complicit in her own abuse, further underscoring their indifference and ignorance about intimate partner violence by including her in that grotesque stand-by-your-man press conference and tweeting out her apology from the Ravens Twitter account. (That tweet has since been deleted.) This behavior perpetuates the myth that somehow the victim “deserved” what happened to her (She lunged at him, didn’t she? She was arrested too, wasn’t she?), and exploits the personal blame that is so characteristic of victims and survivors of intimate partner abuse. It absolves the rest of us of any responsibility for taking action.

The NFL continues to only talk about Ray and Janay Rice as a couple, with no indication that they understand the danger that she, as an individual, may now be in. It is well recognized by researchers and domestic violence advocates that the most dangerous time for victims of intimate partner violence is when they try to leave, which is something my mother knew instinctively. The most dangerous time for Janay Rice may be right now, as she is living with a man whose mindset may well be that his career has just been cut short because of his wife.

Harbaugh said Monday, “I have nothing but hope and goodwill for Ray and Janay. And we’ll do whatever we can going forward to help them as they go forward and try to make the best of it.”

This help does not seem to include making clear that the NFL is placing Janay’s safety first. Harbaugh’s statement reinforces the notion that domestic abuse is a “private problem,” shared by both parties, in which they have equal culpability. At no point has the NFL assured us that anything is being done to provide for Janay’s safety. Nor has the league publicly expressed any understanding of what this episode and any ongoing abuse could do to the Rices’ young daughter. Leaving it up to Janay to “work things out” with a violent husband means that she is left alone in what may be an ongoing abusive relationship, with few places to turn.

And, despite a recent announcement of a more comprehensive approach to domestic violence within the NFL, I don’t have a great deal of confidence in the league going forward. In his announcement, Goodell promised:

[W]e will ensure that the NFL LifeLine and NFL Total Wellness Program are staffed with personnel trained to provide prompt and confidential assistance to anyone at risk of domestic violence or sexual assault — whether as a victim or potential aggressor. Information regarding these resources will be furnished to all NFL personnel and their families. Our Player Engagement Directors and Human Resource Executives will meet with team spouses and significant others to ensure that they are aware of the resources available to them as NFL family members, including the ability to seek confidential assistance through independent local resources, as well as through the club or the NFL Total Wellness Program. In this respect, we will utilize our existing, established telephone and on-line programs, and will communicate the full range of available services to all NFL personnel and their families.

Several things worry me about this new policy. For one, it puts the NFL in the role of self-policing, an approach that has proven to be a huge failure with regard to sexual assault and rape at universities and one that makes me deeply uncomfortable, given the NFL’s institutional imperative for good publicity and self-preservation. Second, it seems again to misunderstand how deeply manipulative, destructive, coercive, and dangerous abusers can be.

In addition, the NFL’s “second incident” approach to domestic violence places women in jeopardy, both now and in the future. Look at it this way: A football player abuses his partner, or anyone for that matter. This is bad PR for the league and the player, and it’s bad for the player’s pocketbook and career. So the victim does not report because she doesn’t want to be the one responsible for what happens after, perhaps even under threat of more violence. Let’s say, however, the abuse otherwise becomes public. The player is suspended. For that woman or any subsequent woman to seek help for further abuse (the “second incident”) means that again, in her abuser’s eyes, she would be responsible for his lifetime ban from the league. Is anyone doubtful about the kinds of coercion and threats that come into play here? Any intimate partner subject to current or future abuse and threats will almost certainly be less likely to come forward and report because the consequences for that victim may be more abuse or even death.

It is an untenable situation, and I am not sure of the ways around it, but I know this is not the answer. Why is even one incident of abuse OK?

One thing the NFL must begin to do is talk about the victims of domestic abuse as people who are indeed victims. They are not in “situations.” They did not “play a role” in their abuse. They have been attacked, violated, beaten, and demoralized, and their safety and the safety of their children is paramount.

Moreover, everyone in the NFL—every player, coach, front office administrator, public relations rep, and equipment manager—should have to undergo training in understanding, spotting, and supporting victims of intimate partner violence. Not the perpetrators, the victims.

And it’s time for the league to put its money where its mouth is. The NFL takes in billions of dollars every year as a not-for-profit—and therefore tax-exempt—organization, a situation that not only boggles my mind but stretches reality. (How does that work, IRS?) I would like to propose that the NFL put $100 million immediately—not in installments, not over time—into a fund to be administered by a coalition of domestic violence shelters and counseling centers throughout the country, the budgets of which have been slashed by governors in many states. I would further propose that a minimum of $25 million be donated to that account every year for the next ten years. The league can afford it, and victims of violence need it. That would be a real start.