Monday September 7th, 2015

It is not an anniversary that anyone in the NFL marks with a sense of accomplishment, only awareness and perhaps a sense of apprehension. One year ago today, the elevator surveillance video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancé in the face went viral via TMZ, and the resulting firestorm engulfed the league and quickly forced it to deal with the new realities of its domestic violence problem.

The NFL’s domestic violence issues didn’t start or end with Rice and his actions of that well-chronicled Feb. 2014 night in Atlantic City, but after the visceral impact made by that video from within the elevator, the NFL knew that the rules had changed, and it had to reflect that change.

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“If there’s one thing players now realize in the past year, which is probably different than anything they’ve ever faced before, this has become a career-ending issue,” one high-level club executive said recently. “Everything else you usually get a second chance, but with domestic violence, it’s probably game over. That more than anything helps create the biggest cultural change that can happen. Knowing your career could be over, no matter who you are.”

Greg Hardy’s presence on Dallas’s 2015 roster—four-game league suspension notwithstanding—speaks to the lack of a league-wide zero tolerance approach in domestic violence cases, but a tipping point was undeniably reached a year ago. In canvassing some NFL club executives about the steps taken in the past year, they acknowledge the league’s efforts to deal with domestic violence were born in a crisis environment and remain very much a work in its nascent stage. But there has been progress made in terms of education and awareness, they say, and some see the positives that have emerged from one of the NFL’s darkest chapters.

“While the Ray Rice saga was ugly, over the long term you’ll probably get better decisions and a better league because of it,” the club executive said. “Because the biggest change has been in the cultural awareness within teams. It comes somewhat from the education aspect that has been put in place, and it comes somewhat from going through the experience of Ray Rice and Greg Hardy a year ago. Teams are much more apprehensive about taking players who have had domestic violence issues in their past. It’s just the beginning of a change over the long term that will make it a priority to steer away from guys who have a history of domestic violence. I think the tolerance level for it has fundamentally changed.”

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But only selective change is truly visible from the perspective of just one year. True, Rice remains out of the league, his career seemingly finished as soon as he became the public face of the DV issue. But Seattle drafted former Michigan defensive end Frank Clark in the second round this year despite his being arrested and charged with domestic violence last November—the charges were reduced to disorderly conduct in April—with the defending NFC champions withstanding considerable scrutiny over their controversial selection. Ray McDonald is out of the league after both the 49ers and Bears cut him loose, but a punished Hardy remains, sending a mixed message at best. And of course, Adrian Peterson, whose child-abuse incident represented a second high-profile case on the domestic violence front last season, is set to make his long-delayed return to the field in Week 1 this season.

The NFL, according to a league spokesperson, is starting its second year of mandatory domestic violence/sexual assault education and awareness classes for every member of all 32 organizations and the league office, and in conjunction with Domestic Violence Awareness Month will publish a new series of anti-domestic violence public service announcements from players in October this year, following up on last year’s “NO MORE” PSA campaign. In addition, the league has maintained its ties to the advisors Rita Smith, Jane Randel, Beth Richie and Tony Porter, who were brought on board last season to give advice on matters dealing with domestic violence and sexual assault. Another former advisor, Lisa Friel, was hired full-time by the NFL this spring, as Special Counsel—Investigations. A framework within the league has been constructed that should never again allow for the in-attention of the pre-Rice era.

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“Without question, the league has followed through and done what it said it was going to do in terms of education and awareness,” another longtime club executive said. “This wasn’t just lip service that they were trying to do to placate or satisfy the public or special interests groups. We all have to take those programs now and the other things we’re mandated to do on an annual basis. And I think it’s encouraged clubs to do even more on a local, team level. The  most important thing is people in the league are trying to do the right thing, and people are aware now of an issue that I don’t know if it was taken as seriously as it obviously should have been.”     

But other club officials I spoke with are realistic about the incremental pace of progress with an issue the league didn’t really fully confront until it absolutely had to, in the wake of so much pressure from fans, sponsors and elected officials in the aftermath of the Rice video. One year after Rice is too early of a temperature reading to assign much meaning to.

“I don’t think you can weigh it as a snapshot in time a year later,” a club executive said. “You have to weigh it five or 10 years later, to see how it works. A year’s not going to true cultural change. It may provide procedural change and it may provide greater awareness, but you can’t ever accomplish cultural change in a year. I think the league has achieved both of those, procedural change and greater awareness. But cultural change comes after years of both of those.

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“Everything that leads to long-term cultural change can’t be measured in the short term. Much of what the league came up with it did so in crisis mode, and usually what you come up with in crisis mode is not perfect. Not to say what they did was wrong last year. I don’t think they dropped the ball on what they said they were going to do, but now you continue to refine it and make it better.’’

One year after the Rice video shocked the NFL into a belated full-scale effort to combat domestic violence, the hard work of change remains plentiful.

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