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NFL must actively work toward ending domestic abuse

Last February, entertainment news network TMZ released a video exposing former Rutgers football player Ray Rice dragging his then-fiancée’s unconscious body from an elevator after physically assaulting her. The NFL suspended Rice for two games after the Baltimore Ravens player was indicted by a grand jury for third-degree aggravated assault in March. Commissioner Roger Goodell further suspended Rice from the league in September after a second video surfaced of Rice assaulting his wife. However, the video itself appeared to have confirmed information Goodell was completely aware of at the original time of Rice’s first suspension, suggesting Goodell’s original decision reflected a lax approach to Rice’s violent behavior.

After a U.S. district court accepted Rice’s appeal for double jeopardy, the courts overturned Goodell’s second suspension, leaving Rice eligible to sign with any NFL team. Judge Barbara Jones further ruled that the NFL was fully aware of the extent of Rice’s actions at the time of his initial suspension and should be held responsible for failing to administer proper disciplinary action. Jones simultaneously condemned the NFL’s handling of the situation, as well as the league’s history of downplaying incidents of domestic abuse, ruling within court, “That the league did not realize the severity of [Rice’s] conduct without a visual record also speaks to their admitted failure in the past to sanction this type of conduct more severely.”

Certainly, to thrust all responsibility on the league and absolve Rice from accountability for his own violent actions is terribly wrong. Rice is responsible for the abuse he engaged in, and a conversation on domestic violence in the NFL cannot begin without framing aggressors as well. Indeed, Rice’s abusive actions are his alone.

However, the NFL’s administration of Rice’s case demonstrates a woeful administrative ineptitude. Goodell himself notes that Rice’s abusive behavior was mishandled on an institutional level. Goodell told team owners that he “didn’t get it right,” promising that the league’s administration “[has] to do better. And we will.”

Most of us hope that Goodell’s memo reflects his future commitment. Yet, speaking out against domestic abuse is not the same as actively condemning it within the league itself. While Goodell later increased domestic abuse suspensions to six weeks for a first offense and lifetime league removal for a second, the commissioner’s original approach reflects the NFL’s history of diminishing the magnitude of domestic abuse. 

In FiveThirtyEight’s July article, “The Rate of Domestic Violence Arrests Among NFL Players,” author Benjamin Morris reveals that domestic abuse arrests are common in the NFL. According to official arrest rates published by USA Today, NFL players’ 5th most common arrest is for domestic violence. When compared to the national average, NFL players have a relative arrest rate of 55.4 percent for domestic assault. With approximately 83 domestic violence arrests per year, the NFL is dealing with a serious crisis of abusive behavior on its hands. 

This isn’t a particularly sudden trend — in fact, the league has failed to punish abusive players for decades. According to American sportscaster Don Yaeger, the NFL has a long history of erasing and sanitizing domestic abuse. Fifteen years ago, an NFL representative sent to a domestic abuse summit once remarked that “giving up two out of 16 paychecks for [domestic assault]” was “a significant enough penalty” for domestic assault. Yaeger argues that, while the climate is changing in 2014, the NFL has a long and dangerous history of downplaying domestic abuse as a serious issue. NFL representatives see domestic violence as a mere misdemeanor, one that required a paycheck or two knocked off a player’s yearly salary. Unfortunately, the league has never held players accountable for physical abuse — a trend that Goodell further reaffirmed.

After acknowledging his lax punishment for Rice, Goodell increased penalization for domestic abuse within the league and promised stricter policies that directly punish abusive players. However, regulations are only as good as the administrators enforcing them. If Goodell truly wants to curb domestic violence within the league, then Goodell must walk the walk. 

Philip Wythe is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in English with a minor in political science. Their column, “Nothing, if Not Critical,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.

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