Personal Foul, Unnecessary Roughness: Throwing the Flag at the NFL’s Domestic Violence Problem // Kelsey Thomas, M.A.

Photo by: Gary Markstein,

How fitting it is that October was National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, as we were all reminded how dangerously pervasive the issue of domestic and intimate partner violence continues to be within the National Football League (NFL).  Although the NFL is no stranger to violence against women, the league has a long and well documented history of being lenient with repercussions for domestic violence offences.  Here is a timeline of the NFL’s history of domestic violence policies (Brown 2016).

A. 1997-2000: The Violent Crime Policy (VCP) Era
Prior to 1997 no NFL player convicted of domestic violence was disciplined by the league, despite police reports of domestic violence for 56 players between 1989 and 1994 (Brown, 2016).  The NFL’s first conduct policy, the Violent Crime Policy (VCP) was adopted under the league’s former commissioner, Paul Tagliabue.  At that time, the league hired psychologist and domestic violence expert, Lem Burnham, to assist them in developing a policy for dealing with domestic violence.  Dr. Burnham suggested a zero-tolerance policy that would result in the banning of any player convicted of a domestic violence offense, and developed an educational program, including presentations for NFL players and employees.  However, many individuals still viewed the punishment for domestic violence offenses as a responsibility of the criminal justice system, and the VCP precluded immediate action by the league commissioner.  Thus, the NFL missed several opportunities during this time to address the growing problem with domestic violence within the league (Brown 2016).

B. 2000-2014: The Personal Conduct Policy (PCP) Era and the Ray Rice Incident
The NFL expanded the VCP to include other criminal conduct, and changed the policy name accordingly. In 2007, under Commissioner Goodell, the policy was revised to authorize disciplining players accused of domestic violence, even when no criminal charges were filed. At this time the policy was also expanded to include coaches, employees, and owners. Then, in 2014 video surveillance footage from an Atlantic City Hotel surfaced, showing Baltimore Ravens wide receiver, Ray Rice, forcibly striking his then fiancée (now wife) Janay Palmer in the head, rendering her unconscious. Originally, only the second half of the video was released, which showed Rice hitting, kicking, and dragging Palmer’s unconscious body out of the elevator.  The NFL and Commissioner Goodell issued Rice two-game suspension, citing the fact that the video provided a limited view of the incident, combined with the leniency shown by New Jersey criminal justice system as reasons for their own leniency in penalty. However, shortly after this announcement, additional video footage was released to the press, depicting Rice striking Palmer in the head. Public outcry ensued, and the Ravens unanimously agreed to terminate Rice’s contract, and he was subsequently banned from the league (Brown 2016).

C. 2014-Present: The Updated PCP and Current, Ongoing Issues
The NFL and Commissioner Goodell appointed three female domestic violence experts to assist in updating the PCP in response to the Rice incident. Allow me to walk you through the updated policy as it pertains to domestic and intimate partner violence, which became effective in December 2014 and was last updated on July 13, 2015.  On page two under the heading “Expectations and Standards of Conduct” it states that players convicted of a crime, those involved in the disposition of criminal proceedings (as defined by the PCP), and those who are not convicted will be subject to discipline if they have engaged in any of the prohibited conduct listed, including “[a]ctual or threatened physical violence against another person, including dating violence, child abuse, and other forms of family violence; [a]ssault and/or battery, including sexual assault or other sex offenses; [s]talking, harassment, or similar forms of intimidation; [c]onduct that poses a genuine danger to the safety and well-being of another person,” as well as several other behaviors (National Football League, 2015, pp. 6).  Pertaining to penalties for such offenses, the new CPC indicates that:
“[w]ith regard to violations of the Personal Conduct Policy that involve assault, battery, domestic violence, dating violence, child abuse and other forms of family violence, or sexual assault involving physical force or committed against someone incapable of giving consent, a first offense will subject the offender to a baseline suspension without pay of six games, with consideration given to any aggravating or mitigating factors.” (National Football League, 2015 pp. 6)
Possible aggravating factors listed in the handbook include: a) prior conduct violations, b) violence with a weapon, c) repeated striking, d) choking, e) or abuse against a particularly vulnerable person (e.g., abuse against a child, pregnant woman, elderly person, or abuse to others in the presence of a child). The handbook indicates that a player will receive “permanent banishment” (pp. 6) from the NFL for second offenses of this nature. Up to this point, I find the policy to be fairly spot on. It is all-inclusive in terms of different types of violence (i.e., domestic, dating, child abuse, sexual assault, etc.), and even included common intimidation tactics used by abusers (e.g., stalking and harassment). Inclusion of aggravating and mitigating factors to inform the discipline decision reveals a comprehensive understanding of the impact domestic violence has on children and its cyclical nature, as well as consideration for the fact that abuse is a learned behavior and abusers are likely to have their own baggage to unpack (i.e., be victims of abuse themselves). Also, the fact that permanent banishment after a second offense has been all but unheard of for any offense seems to demonstrate the league’s commitment to thoroughly dealing with their domestic violence problem. Excellent! Reading the policy up to this point, I am very pleased. But…wait for it…There it was, on the very next line at the very bottom of page six: a big, ugly loophole where feminist hopes and dreams go to die. The loophole reads, “[a]n individual who has been banished may petition for reinstatement after one year, but there is no presumption or assurance that the petition will be granted” (National Football League, 2015, pp. 6). Huh?  I’m not sure what dictionary Commissioner Goodell uses, but tells me the definition of “permanent”, as in “permanent banishment”, means “lasting or continuing for a long time, or forever; not temporary or changing” (, n.d.). There is absolutely nothing permanent about a penalty that can essentially be reversed in as little as one year. The policy in its entirety is undermined by this little one-liner, snuck in at the bottom of the page. To make matters more confusing and to further validate my trust issues with Commissioner Goodell, no guidelines regarding reinstatement consideration are provided. How convenient! It’s like they were SO tired from adequately detailing the first half of this policy that they figured they had done enough work for one day and said, “screw it, we’ll burn that bridge when we come to it.” After further dissection of the policy, I realize that the intimidation tactics listed as conduct violations are not actually grouped with the other domestic violence offense and thus, the same discipline guidelines do not apply to these coercive behaviors often used by abusers to maintain power and control. Furthermore, I was unable to find any specific and clearly outlined guidelines for disciplinary action corresponding with this form of abuse anywhere in the handbook—A loophole the size of a violated order of protection.  Apparently, the NFL and Commissioner Goodell can’t get within 500 feet of a comprehensive domestic violence policy.
            Despite the six-game baseline penalty for first domestic violence offenses being clearly outlined in the updated policy, Commissioner Goodell and the NFL are still struggling in their ability to enforce penalties. In late September of this year, one of the league’s current domestic violence scandals came to light, involving then-active New York Giant’s (NYG) kicker, Josh Brown. According to police documents, Brown admitted in letters, emails, and journal entries to physically, verbally, and emotionally abusing his now ex-wife, Molly. These documents were part of Brown’s case file associated with his arrest on May 22, 2015 following an altercation with his wife (Raanan, 2016). Despite being aware of this off-season arrest, the NYG resigned Brown at the start of this season. Additionally, despite the updated PCP’s six-game baseline penalty and the fact that aggravating factors were clearly present in this case (e.g., the abuse began when Molly was pregnant with their daughter and continued in the presence of their children later), Commissioner Goodell only suspended Brown for one game at the start of this season. Both Commissioner Goodell and the NYG co-owner justified their leniency and decision to resign Brown with the leniency of the criminal justice system and the fact that no charges had been filed (Santiago, 2016). I will detail the problem with this rationale in my suggestions to the NFL later in this article. Brown has since been released from the team (which only took the Giants several days to do), and has been placed on the commissioners exempt list, which is essentially paid administrative leave. Although his future in the league is uncertain, status on this list does not prohibit any team from signing Brown to their team, he simply will not be permitted to play.

So, here we are with this half written and almost entirely unenforced policy, and a continuous problem with players abusing women. Then somebody in the back, who maybe hasn’t quite been paying attention the whole time, dares to beg the question: “why does this keep happening?” In some ways, it seems rather obvious (hint: the half written and mostly unenforced policy), but why is this so hard for the NFL and Commissioner Goodell to get right? They can’t really use the whole “budget cuts” excuse like everyone else, so what exactly is the problem?  Do they just not care enough?  Is domestic violence just too complicated?  My guess is, the answer is probably both. Domestic violence is a complicated problem that presents in many different forms with various root causes contributing to its manifestation. In terms of average rookie or young NFL players, we have young men with still developing frontal lobes going from college to primetime in a matter of months, entering a profession and subculture steeped in toxic masculinity where they have millions of dollars at their disposal and all the associated status and male privilege society grants them. Already there are a plethora of potential risk factors for violence, and I’m just getting started. Combine all of that with a family history of domestic violence or trauma (witnessed, experienced, or both), any past head trauma associated with football as well as new head injuries, and any substance abuse. Top it all off with a growing sense of entitlement fueled by having little to no consequences for his behavior and voila! You have yourself an abuser.  Obviously, all of these factors do not apply to every abuser in the league. The point is that, “why does he do that?” is a complicated question because domestic violence is a multifaceted issue.  Now to the other side of this coin. The NFL’s substance abuse policy demonstrates that the league is highly capable of developing and enforcing a detailed policy when motivated enough.  So essentially, a major reason why Commissioner Goodell and the NFL have been unable to successfully target their domestic violence problem is because Commissioner Goodell and NFL simply do not care enough about their domestic violence problem. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that they don’t care at all. They care a little bit, just enough to write half a policy and enforce even less of it. So, why does this keep happening? It keeps happening because domestic violence is a self-reinforcing cycle that will not stop without comprehensive and consistent intervention, the complexity and gravity of which has been sidelined by Commissioner Goodell and the NFL.
In response to the Josh Brown situation and the NFL fumbling their updated domestic violence policy, Bari Z. Weinberger, a family law expert from New Jersey, challenged the NFL in an open letter to implement a 7-point plan for taking a stronger stance against domestic violence.  Her points included: a) mandatory domestic violence prevention education for players, b) mandatory counseling following allegations or charges of domestic violence, c) greater transparency in domestic violence investigations, d) elimination of “locker room talk”, e) clarification of language regarding the six-game suspension rule to close loopholes that allow reduced suspensions (as was the case with Josh Brown), and f) support for players who take a stand against domestic violence (e.g., Steve Smith Sr. of the Baltimore Ravens) (Weinberger Law Group, 2016). I love that this attorney, woman, and self-proclaimed “life-long football fan” (pp. 1) used her expertise in family law to openly make suggestions rather than simply complaining. I find myself struggling with the ever-mounting cognitive dissonance associated with trying to balance my feminist core belief system with my genuine love for the sport of football. I know I am not alone in this respect. Even fans who do not self-identify as feminists are struggling achieve a balance within their moral reasoning systems that somehow allows them to maintain a positive association with football fandom and does not also imply that they condone or are permissive of violence against women. My current personal solution to this dissonance is writing this article, the remainder of which will be devoted to highlighting necessary changes I believe the NFL must make in order to properly address the problem of domestic violence.   

Many fans took to Twitter, expressing disapproval of how Commissioner Goodell and the New York Giants handled the Josh Brown domestic violence incident. Credit: Tweet by @TheyCallMeAzul 

1.  Make it a Priority.
The NFL preaches the importance of integrity, warning players in the personal conduct policy that engaging in “conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity of the NFL” is prohibited, and that those who engaged is such conduct will be subject to discipline (National Football League, 2015, pp. 2). However, the league has failed time and time again to lead by example and has been inconsistent at best in demonstrating integrity. I think it’s quite obvious that the NFL has, thus far, discounted the gravity of their domestic violence problem by prioritizing punitive action for lesser, non-violent offenses. For those who disagree or do not follow football, allow me to break it down. It costs a player four games without pay for letting the air out of a ball, but he could knock the air out of a woman for free. Smoking a blunt costs a player four, six, or even ten games without pay, but causing blunt force trauma to a woman may only cost him one or two games, and only more if there happens to be video evidence and public outcry. Until the NFL recognizes the severity of its domestic violence problem and gives it the respect and attention it warrants, nothing will change. This means not only making plans for change, but following through on them as well—commit to the play and run the route accordingly. 

2.  Stay on offense--Be Proactive about this Issue.
You can’t win anything if you are always only on defense. To tackle the issue of domestic violence head-on, the NFL needs to stay in front of it. We know the NFL and Commissioner Goodell have worked with psychologists and domestic violence experts, and we know that domestic violence education has always been a key component in this policy. Knowledge and understanding are the mechanisms of change and the foundation for which this entire program stands.  Make domestic violence education mandatory for everyone; Not because all players are abusers, but because every player has the potential to stop abuse if they all know what it looks like and what to do. Teach players, coaches, employees, and staff about the various ways abuse can manifest (physical, verbal, emotional, sexual, financial, etc.) and just how devastating the effects of each can be for victims. 
Education shouldn’t stop at the topic of abuse and domestic violence. Aggression is a central feature of football, and when that aggression has no barrier from personal life, it becomes dangerous. Players should be taught about the need to compartmentalize their positive (read: productive) aggression. This aggression can be viewed as an additional piece of protective gear, necessary to keep them safe in the game (like a helmet and shoulder pads), but if worn off the field, hinders their ability to function normally and be productive in their daily life. Players should be given tools to help them decompress and leave this excess aggression behind when they go home at the end of the day. Just as ice baths and stretching are necessary routines that allow players’ bodies to better adjust from games or practice back to daily activity, brief mindfulness or meditation exercise are necessary to help players debrief and orient their minds to the present moment, allowing the boundary for aggressive behavior to be reinforced.  
Lastly, work to create an environment that promotes gender equality and respect for women. Gendered discourse is commonly used in the form of challenging insults, with the end goal of motivating a player to improve his performance (McDowell & Schaffner, 2011). An example of this would be telling a player to “man up” or “grow a pair”, or calling him a “sissy” or more derogatory word that implies his shortcomings demote him to the status of a woman.  Trust me when I say, the list of “things worse than being a woman” is quite extensive, and if you can’t come up with a better insult you lack both imagination and intelligence. Violence against women is perpetuated by disrespect for and objectification of women. The NFL needs to recognize its role in perpetuating this problem, and take an active stance on the issue. As Weinberger suggested, work to eliminate “locker room talk”, but also raise awareness of how language is subtly used to reinforce negative feelings and disrespect for women, and prohibit the use of derogatory and sexist comments as a coaching tactic to challenge players.

3.  Protect your HUMAN Investments
While the bottom line in football may be about winning games, these draft picks and trade acquisitions are not simply investments being made. We as a society and professional sports industries need to stop viewing and treating professional athletes as if they are gladiators or action figures who are expected to sacrifice their bodies, minds, spirits, families, and lives for our entertainment and television ratings. Players are people, with pasts and futures that span well beyond the football field. They are dynamic and have mental health needs that change throughout the course of their careers and lives, just as their medical needs do. A player’s body may be his temple, but his psyche is the foundation holding everything up. If there’s a fracture in the foundation, the temple cannot remain stable. The NFL needs to better prioritize the mental health needs of players to ensure they are able to cope with stress without resorting to violence.
As previously mentioned, we know that a history either witnessed or experienced abuse as a child is a significant predictor of domestic violence. Substance abuse is also a risk factor for violence, and research has shown athletes tend to have higher rates of alcohol use and violence compared to non-athlete populations (Sønderlund et al., 2014). Lastly, we know that past behavior is one of the best predictors of future behavior. If a player has a history of being violent toward women, that pattern is likely to continue. The league needs to incorporate this well-established knowledge on domestic violence risk factors when screening players on draft day, and beyond. Ask about any history of abuse they experienced, inquire about what their home life was like growing up, use mental health professionals and standardized assessment measures to better understand the totality of the person you are taking on, and this process shouldn’t begin and end on draft day. Follow-up with players, closely monitor and re-evaluate areas of concern.  For individuals at high risk for domestic violence, have a preventative plan to educate and stop the issue before it starts or worsens. The league should look to and lean on the strongest, most outspoken players against domestic violence. I’m talking about players like Steve Smith Sr. and Tom Brady, who do not hesitate to speak out against domestic violence in the league. Eli Manning may have been the face of the NFL’s “No More” campaign, but without a script he had very little to say about the topic of domestic violence. The league should pair at-risk players with strong players to serve as mentors who will help hold them accountable for their behavior and assist them in making a healthy adjustment to their new lifestyle. 

4.  Work on Your Defense.
The NFL’s inability to consistently enforce penalties for domestic violence offenses looks a lot like those parents who can’t keep theirs kids in time-out for the duration of the punishment. The difference is, inconsistent parenting produces an unruly child who’s most at risk for having a tantrum in the grocery store, while inconsistent penalties for domestic violence help to produce a man who endangers the lives of women everywhere. Consequences are a natural part of life that all people must experience in some form or another. When someone does something that violates a rule or law and the corresponding punishment is missing or inconsistent, the behavior is reinforced and the likelihood that this person will engage in that behavior again increases. When a person is not held accountable for his actions, he begins to believe such rules and laws do not apply to him, leading to a pernicious sense of entitlement. Josh Brown admitted to having an excessive sense of entitlement, stating that he had essentially viewed himself as God and his ex-wife as his slave. This is a characteristic trait of abusers that is only made stronger by the NFL’s weakness in enforcing penalties that would hold abusers in the league accountable their behavior.  When a six-game suspension can so easily be reduced to one game or no suspension, a clear message is sent that the league finds domestic violence acceptable, which is why it keeps occurring. The NFL needs to stop making empty threats of punishment to players who commit domestic violence and empty promises of justice to those players’ victims.  
There needs to be clear and enforceable guidelines for individuals arrested or charged with domestic violence offenses. The need for intervention and leniency decisions should not be based on conviction or whether charges were dropped because in the majority of domestic violence cases, criminal charges are not pursued. The issues are often settled instead in family court because treatment is preferable to criminal punishment such as imprisonment. If there was enough evidence for an arrest to be made or charges to be filed at any point, there is enough for the league to enforce a penalty. The policy should include a firm minimum penalty. If consideration is to be given to aggravating and mitigating factors, the amount of influence these factors have on the penalty should be outlined clearly in the conduct policy. Significantly more detail and transparency is necessary for this policy to effectively improve the NFL’s domestic violence issue. The conduct policy should include a tiered program of similar detail to the league’s substance abuse policy. Specific requirements should be outlined in detail for each stage, such as completion of anger management courses, attending both family/couple therapy as well as individual therapy, complying with any legal requirements (i.e., protective orders), and avoiding any new arrests. Also, as is done in the case of substance abuse violations, the league should follow the player and monitor his progression through the program over the course of several seasons (e.g., players remain in stage one for 24 months or two full seasons). The policy should detail how the league plans to monitor players’ progression through treatment to ensure its effectiveness and promote accountability. Lastly, clear guidelines should be in place for re-signing player who have committed domestic violence offenses in the past or during off-seasons, and clear punishments should be outlined and enforced for owners who violate these standards.      

Until Commissioner Goodell and the NFL can up their game and make tackling the league’s domestic violence problem a real priority, we are only going to hear of more abuse and a longer list of victims who didn’t have to be. Fans can do their part by speaking out against domestic violence within the league, about the problem of violence against women throughout society, and by supporting players who actively do the same. With yet another domestic violence scandal recently resurfacing involving rookie star running back, Ezekiel Elliott, Commissioner Goodell has an opportunity to make the right call and throw the flag at domestic violence.

Written by Kelsey Thomas, M.A.


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Sønderlund, A. L., O’Brien, K., Kremer, P., Rowland, B., De Groot, F., Staiger, P.,…Miller, P.G. (2014). The association between sports participation, alcohol use and aggression and violence: A systematic Review. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sports, 17(1), 2-7.

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