NFL’s domestic violence policy could undergo numerous changes

USA Today

Erik Brady


NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said he and the league’s owners spent about five hours at Wednesday’s fall meetings talking about domestic violence and that his job is to correct mistakes in how he handled the Ray Rice case and make sure they don’t happen again.

Goodell and his league have become a focal point in a national conversation on domestic violence since video surfaced of Rice cold-cocking his future wife in a casino elevator. Former NFL player Joe Ehrmann thinks the harsh spotlight on the league lets the rest of the nation off the hook.

“Right now everyone wants to put the responsibility on Roger Goodell and the NFL,” Ehrmann, 65, told USA TODAY Sports. “But really, every citizen and every institution and every parent needs to be teaching this to our boys and our girls. It’s a societal problem. I’m 65 and my generation of men is the first one ever held legally accountable for the beat-down women take in this country. There has been apathy and indifference way too long.”

NFL owners and league officials discussed possible policy revisions at the first league-wide meetings since the severity of the Rice case came to light in early September and appalled the country. Goodell suspended Rice for two games at first and later, after wide criticism, introduced a policy with stiffer penalties for future cases. After TMZ released video of the punch, the Baltimore Ravens released Rice and Goodell suspended him indefinitely, which Rice is appealing.

Now the NFL is working toward a new policy, which Goodell has said he expects to institute before the Super Bowl. USA TODAY Sports spoke to experts in domestic violence prevention — some who have offered advice to the league and others who have not — about what they’d like to see in a new policy. All agreed on this point: Indefinite suspensions are better than permanent ones, because they leave open the possibility for rehabilitation through intensive counseling.

“The problem with zero tolerance, or two episodes and you’re out, is the unintended consequences,” said Dr. Patricia Cluss, director of Standing Firm, a Pittsburgh group that specializes in helping businesses curb partner violence. “Victims will be less likely to report if their partner will lose his job as a result.”

Quentin Walcott, co-executive director of CONNECT, a domestic violence prevention group in New York, said the NFL policy should not end careers. “It should mandate that players get the help they need to stop the behavior and to help their wives and girlfriends.”

Goodell in recent weeks also has met with groups of former players and with leaders of the players’ union to talk about what the league should do. He wrote in a memo to owners in advance of Wednesday’s meetings that the discussions underscored the complexity of the issues and that there is no uniform response adopted by businesses nationally.

Walcott offered several specific examples of what he would like to see in a revamped NFL policy:

Require players to enter a domestic violence account- ability/batterers’ program for 26 weeks or one year.

These programs seek to help batterers stop abusive behavior and hold offenders responsible for their acts. They look at “power and control in relationships, attitudes toward women and girls and masculinity,” Walcott said. “How men are socialized can lead to this idea that we are superior and more valuable than women … looking at women as property or objects. When men see women as less than human it becomes easy to be abusive toward them.”

Immediate suspension until the batterers’ program is completed.

Walcott said batterers should attend an ongoing men’s or fathers’ program and perform community service with youth and domestic violence shelters. He believes batterers should also make a monetary donation to domestic violence programs in the cities where their teams are and in their hometowns.

Immediate discussion of planning safety for abused persons, with a support and empowerment group.

“The NFL needs to create a culture of help,” Walcott said.

If there are children who have been exposed to domestic violence they should also be in counseling, including art or play therapy, to ensure such behavior is not repeated in sibling or dating relationships or through treatment of pets.

“We need to stop the cycle of violence,” Walcott said.

Participation by suspended players and other interested players as trained volunteers for a stop/helpline funded by the NFL for other players struggling with issues in their relationships.

Walcott said the stop/helpline would explore non-violent and non-controlling ways to deal with conflict, with training that covers how to transform attitudes and behavior towards women.

Breakthrough is a global group seeking to make violence against women unacceptable. Lynn Harris, its vice president of communications, says, “We would like to see the NFL implement a policy that works so well they never have to actually use it.”


NFL owners saw a league presentation on domestic violence Wednesday that included a video in which Ehrmann says: “I think this is an opportunity for every man to look inside himself. How do we redeem this moment?”

Ehrmann, who played 10 seasons as a defensive tackle, looks directly into the camera and implores his viewers to consider what it would be like to see a loved one — mother, grandmother, wife, daughter or niece — abused physically, sexually or verbally at a party.

He is a powerful speaker who regularly visits with teams and is currently talking to teams about domestic violence prevention. He said he has spoken to the Ravens, Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints and expects to speak to more teams in coming weeks.

“All of us have to redefine our own masculinity,” Ehrmann said when asked to describe his message to teams. “Every man has to figure out what he’s going to stand for, who he’s going to stand with and what he’s going to stand against.”

Ehrmann said he attended a meeting in which Goodell met with experts in the field of domestic violence prevention.

“I don’t want to overstep confidentiality bounds, but I can tell you Roger came to that meeting with his heart on his sleeve as a son, as a husband and as a father of daughters,” Ehrmann said. “I think for the whole league it’s been a wakeup call.”

Kim Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, is among the experts Goodell has consulted.

“First, they should get their house in order and make sure their policies are good policies reflective of best practices, and that is something I believe they are in the process of doing,” Gandy said. “And beyond addressing the issue of player discipline, I would hope that they would use the power of the NFL’s brand to begin changing public attitudes about masculinity and violence. … I think there are few entities in the country that have the ability — both financially and in terms of impact — to accomplish a thing like that.”

Cluss said since the women’s shelter movement began in the 1970s it has largely been female voices speaking out. “Now we have the NFL, in a loud male voice, saying that hitting an intimate partner is not OK,” Clubb said, “that it is not the right way to be a man.”

Ehrmann said that ideally the voices on domestic violence should include coaches in youth sports and high school and college sports, and he is producing a video for them.

“It’s going to teach coaches how to talk to their players about the issues surrounding male violence toward women,” Ehrmann said. “Coaches won’t speak unless they know the topic. And by not talking about it, they speak volumes. Getting boys to understand that they must treat women and girls the way they want their sisters and mothers to have been treated when they were dating.

“Every boy in America needs to know what consent is,” Ehrmann said. “There needs to be a massive retraining of what it means to be a man in this culture. … Male violence against women is a crime of power and control. Women’s can end it; all our mothers and daughters and sisters can do is reduce the risk.

“Male violence toward women won’t end until we raise up a generation of men who have the moral courage and the moral clarity to call out other men on sexist language, actions and attitudes toward girls and women.”

That means players calling out other players in NFL locker rooms, Cluss said.

“It means saying, ” ‘No, that joke is not funny. No, it’s not OK to talk about women that way,’ ” Cluss said, “instead of saying nothing, or laughing.”


Breakthrough runs the initiative Be That Guy, meaning the one who speaks out, not the one who says nothing. It co-sponsored a PSA that ran on the mini video board in the tailgate area outside Lambeau Field before a Green Bay Packers game last week.

“Because of Ray Rice we are having a national conversation” about domestic violence, said Phoebe Schreiner, Breakthrough’s U.S. country director. “We want to seize the momentum and deepen the conversation, not as a marginal problem we need to push away, or think of only as a women’s rights issue, but as everybody’s issue, where we all have a role to play.”

Cluss said since the women’s shelter movement began in the 1970s it has largely been female voices speaking out: “Now we have the NFL, in a loud male voice, saying that hitting an intimate partner is not OK.”

Schreiner said she thinks the NFL has good advisors and good intentions but she hopes the revised policy, when announced, won’t collect dust in a backroom once media attention around the issue subsides.


Whatever the revised policy turns out to be, Walcott said it should apply not just to players but to everyone in the NFL, top to bottom. He compared it to policies his group has worked on at universities.

“There we would want workshops for students but also for administrators, faculty, guidance counselors, security guards, maintenance staff,” he said. “That changes the culture in terms of how you respond to and how you prevent domestic violence.”

Ehrmann said a culture change should start in middle school. But he adds, this is all easy to say, much harder to do. He reiterates this is not just the NFL’s problem.

“I think most Americans live in their comfort zones,” he said. “They’re living life at warp speed and have little time to sit and reflect. People saw that first video” — of Rice dragging his future wife off the elevator unconscious — “and they didn’t take the time to contemplate that.

“People don’t want to think about the physical and emotional pain that’s inflicted, what that does to children in the home. People don’t want to get invested in these issues because once you understand, comes responsibility.”

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