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Will the NFL's Domestic Violence Rule Backfire?

Christian Petersen/Getty Images Sport

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did something remarkable on Thursday: He admitted he made a mistake and proceeded to fix it. In so doing, he sent a powerful message to both his players and to society—one that experts are telling me might actually help reduce domestic violence.

You may remember the controversy from earlier this summer, when Goodell announced that Ray Rice, running back for the Baltimore Ravens, would serve a two-game suspension and lose salary for those weeks following an incident involving his (then) fiancée. The penalty was relatively mild by league standards. Players who violate the league’s drug policy routinely get much harsher treatment, even for marijuana, which has no effect on playing ability and is now legal in a few states. The decision seemed to suggest the league didn’t take domestic violence all that seriously, even though there’s some evidence to suggest pro football players are unusually prone to committing acts of domestic violence.

Critics everywhere (including yours truly, here at QED) let Goodell have it. And his first reaction was to defend the move, arguing that he was trying to take into account Rice’s otherwise good record off-the-field and the statements of the victim, who had since married him. But Goodell later said he’d review the league’s policy and it turns out that he was serious about it. On Thursday, he released a letter to fellow owners. Here’s the key excerpt:

Although the NFL is celebrated for what happens on the field, we must be equally vigilant in what we do off the field.

At times, however, and despite our best efforts, we fall short of our goals. We clearly did so in response to a recent incident of domestic violence. We allowed our standards to fall below where they should be and lost an important opportunity to emphasize our strong stance on a critical issue and the effective programs we have in place. My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn't get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.

From there, Goodell went on to outline a much stricter disciplinary policy related to domestic violence. NFL employees whom the league determines have committed acts of domestic violence will be subject to six game offenses for the first offense and lifetime bans for the second, although players will have the option to petition for reinstatement. The league would also have the option of imposing sterner penalties after a first offense, if, for example, the abuse involved a weapon or a player had a prior history of committing such acts. Note that these penalties would apply to all NFL employees—coaches, front office personnel—and not just players.

There’s more. Goodell announced that the league would be improving its training and counseling, while incorporating domestic violence awareness and prevention into its high profile-public service efforts. As Jane McManus noted at ESPN:

The league plans to take its message to high school and college locker rooms to address domestic violence and sexual assault. Think of how potentially impactful that can be.Women have advocated that platform for years -- and so have some important men's groups -- but to have the wealthiest professional league in the country take it up? The NFL's voice carries weight among that crowd.

The details of the policy are still a little unclear to me. And there’s at least one complicating factor here. As Travis Waldron points out at ThinkProgress, Goodell apparently did not negotiate this with the player’s union, the way the league typically does. But let’s leave those issues aside for the moment. Many of us wanted the NFL to send a loud, unambiguous message about domestic violence—in part because, as such a powerful icon, it could actually help change the way society thinks. With this new policy, Goodell has done that.

Of course, intentions alone matter less than real-world progress. And no sooner had Goodell announced the policy that some people raised a question—if the league penalty for domestic violence was so severe, might not victims be more reluctant to report it? It’s not a crazy question and I didn’t know the answer, so I put it to a handful of experts.

“I think there are some situations in which a victim (or survivor) of domestic violence would be reluctant to report because the penalties are more severe than they were before, but there will be others where the victim will feel it is appropriate for the abuser's employers and the world in general to take the abuse seriously,” said Nancy Lemon, a lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley Law School and longtime domestic violence attorney.

Joan Meier, a law professor at George Washington University, noted that giving players the option of reinstatement after a lifetime ban makes a big difference. “If it were an absolute lifetime ban it would strike me as overkill,” she told me, “not because lifetime ban is necessarily too stringent but because, as others are noting, it will hurt the victim as much as the perpetrator by depriving both (potentially) of their primary support. And it will of course disincentivize victims from reporting. However, apparently this one permits a petition for reinstatement. That makes a certain sense, because it incentivizes the player to really get cleaned up on the domestic violence issues - and presumably if he can prove he's changed, that would be a reasonable grounds for reinstatement.”

“I do think the net effect is positive,” said Tania Tetlow, a law professor at Tulane. She noted that past studies on “mandatory arrest” statutes, in which police arrest abusers even if victims decide not to press charges, suggested they had no impact on the likelihood of people to report incidents. It’s hardly a perfect, she says, but suggestive of where the proper balance lies. “We walk a fine line between providing real deterrence while avoiding overly drastic consequences that discourage reporting, but I think we are a long way from being too hard on domestic violence.”

Lisa C. Smith, an assistant professor at Brooklyn Law School who works with domestic violence victims, acknowledges that balancing the needs of prevention and punishment with the wishes of abuse victims is frequently a “quandary.” But, she says, “Sure and speedy punishment is an excellent deterrent. … The commissioner should be lauded for this bold step.”