NEW YORK — If you sat in the lobby of the MLS headquarters here on Thursday, you couldn’t avoid the topic: A wall-sized television had all the latest news on the NFL’s domestic violence case involving Ray Rice and the scandal over how the league has responded to it. A few blocks away on Park Avenue, the NFL was in crisis mode and commissioner Roger Goodell’s job was in jeopardy.
For MLS commissioner Don Garber, there was a lot to think about in terms of how his own league responds to domestic violence. What’s more, MLS has a major connection to the NFL. Garber spent 16 years as an NFL executive before coming to MLS in 1999. Five current or future MLS teams are wholly or partially owned by NFL owners, and three MLS teams currently or will play in NFL stadiums (New England, Seattle and, starting in 2017, Atlanta).
“[Goodell] and I go back really far,” Garber said during an interview with SI.com. “We both started about the same time in 1984. He in my view is a brilliant, passionate, committed leader of their sport. These are challenging times for him and the NFL, but I don’t believe this is an issue that’s just related to sports. It’s a societal issue, a moral issue."
“If there’s any silver lining to what is happening with this issue today, it’s that it’s creating a massive national discussion on a crucial issue in society,” Garber went on. “Hopefully that discussion will lead all of us to start putting checks and balances in place and education in place to ensure that abhorrent behavior like domestic abuse is eliminated in our society.”
On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter to Goodell and three other sports league commissioners—Garber, the NBA’s Adam Silver and MLB’s Bud Selig—asking them to make public their policies on domestic violence.
“We’ll respond to the committee with our policy,” Garber said. “We as a league stand very strongly with our players union to have a zero-tolerance policy for racism, homophobia and violence of any kind. I have broad powers to discipline players, owners and any employee of the league as it relates to any of these issues. I’m proud to say in the 19 years of MLS there has never been a reported incident of player domestic abuse … Should something like that happen in our league, we’d deal with it swiftly.”
(Former FC Dallas president Doug Quinn, also a former longtime NFL executive, was fully cleared of domestic abuse charges in June 2013, but not before he had resigned from the club.)
Garber said all MLS players participate in preseason training with a counseling expert who visits every club and educates players on avoiding potentially harmful situations on and off the field.
“I believe all sports leagues have this, as does MLS,” said Garber. “It’s an independent body that meets with our clubs and players every year to be sure they’re mindful of how they behave.”