(WOMENSENEWS)–Rita Smith, who spent 20 years with the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, first contacted the National Football League in 1998 to see if they wanted to team up on the issue.
"I knew about their potential influence and power to carry a message," recalled Smith, now a consultant for the NFL and others. "It was clear to me that most of the men in the NFL were not violent, but all of the resources and attention were being focused on a few bad actors."
The response from the NFL, she said: Not interested.
Fast forward to 2012, when Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his 22-year-old girlfriend and then turned the gun on himself. Suddenly, Smith found herself a valuable commodity to the NFL, which began working with her to develop materials to help train players to ward off domestic violence.
But it wasn’t enough. Not until a video surfaced last summer, showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice delivering a knock-out punch to his now-wife Janay Palmer in an Atlantic City elevator, did NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell finally embrace the league’s potential to change the narrative about domestic violence. Critics also say Goodell’s awareness improved substantially as the public outcry intensified and there were calls for his resignation, which still persist.
Smith is now part of a group of consultants hired in 2014 by the NFL to improve education and stiffen penalties for anyone associated with the league, including players, staff and owners.
She said she is optimistic that this year is finally the year that the 32-team football league will use its bully pulpit and its vast financial resources to help put an end to domestic violence, sexual abuse and child abuse.
"This is a long term effort, not a one of a kind thing," she said.
Reaching the Youngest Players
Two other consultants–former Manhattan prosecutor Lisa Friel and Tony Porter, a founder of A Call to Men, whose expertise is in helping develop programs to train men to be kinder and gentler–also spoke to Women’s eNews.
Porter said he and other advisors are trying to improve standards and behavior and want to do counseling and advocacy work that reaches down to the youngest players in Pop Warner football leagues, where boys can begin to play the sport as early as age 5.
"We know domestic violence is a problem," Porter said in a recent phone interview.
"We valued it right alongside how our criminal justice system valued it," which is to say, not very much. "That’s where we tripped up. Advocates say the criminal justice system is jacked up. That is true."
But society, he said, expects more from the NFL.
The league is hoping to roll out more information about its plans and will continue to broadcast anti-violence public service announcements, some to be timed with the Feb. 1 Super Bowl that pits the New England Patriots against last year’s champions, the Seattle Seahawks.
This follows a program that began last fall to revise the conduct policy, last reworked in 2007.
Friel, who has worked on the new conduct policy, said in a phone interview that the old conduct policy "did not have a lot of detail about how the process would go forward if someone made an allegation . . . The criticism was that it wasn’t uniform or consistent. It certainly wasn’t transparent."
The revised policy–presented by the league in December and outlined for Women’s eNews by interviews with consultants and a review of league documents–includes mandatory hour-long training sessions for every league employee (not just the players) to heighten awareness about domestic and sexual violence and child abuse, and to make it clear that the league won’t tolerate or allow its employees to stand for this type of behavior.
To that end, the league training that took place last fall also included encouraging bystander intervention, counseling and designating at each team so called first responders trained to assist both the victim and the perpetrator. The league also established a conduct committee of owners, to review and update the policies.
Perhaps most significantly, Goodell agreed at the behest of several advisors to appoint a special counsel who would handle a misconduct case, a role he had assumed as the league’s top official.
The counsel’s name has not been released but is expected soon, said Anna Isaacson, a league official tapped by Goodell to be vice president for social responsibility.
Goodell will still act as an appeals judge, should the counsel’s ruling be appealed. And the league says whenever possible it won’t wait for the criminal justice system to run its course, but instead will mete out punishment and conduct investigations either in tandem or before the legal system concludes its work.
The league will place those charged with a violent crime or of violating the league’s policy on leave with pay. The list of prohibited conduct also was expanded to include "conduct that undermines or puts at risk the integrity of the NFL, NFL clubs or NFL personnel."
If a league employee’s violation of the personal conduct policy involves 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 or possibly more, depending on the circumstances," according to league documents.
A Mixed Grade
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller, hired by Goodell to examine the league’s handling of the Rice case, gave the league a mixed grade in early January, concluding that officials had not seen the elevator video of Rice knocking out Palmer, but should have pressed to ensure that it had all the available evidence before initially giving Rice a two-week suspension. After the video surfaced, Goodell upped that to six weeks.
The NFL Players Association, which did not respond to repeated requests for comment via phone and email, in October announced that it was setting up its own anti-domestic violence panel. Players Association spokespeople have said that some of what the league is doing should be subject to the collective bargaining agreement between the players and the owners, and expressed concerns about whether the system would be fair to those accused.
One of the first test cases could be New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette, who was charged with domestic violence/simple battery following an arrest at his Kenner, La., home on Jan. 5, according to published reports.
Terrance Banks, Galette’s cousin from New Jersey and a former teammate at Temple University, was also taken into custody and charged with simple battery.
Galette’s lawyer Ralph Whalen said that the alleged victim, a 22-year-old woman, had her earring ripped out and was scratched by a dog that was reacting to her yelling, according to the Associated Press. Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis told the AP that the team plans to let the legal process run its course.