It’s Step 1—Again—for the NFL on Domestic Violence
By Esta Soler
Last month I was among a handful of national experts who met with Roger Goodell in the NFL New York offices. We shared our expertise, voiced our opinions, and helped him craft a letter to NFL owners announcing the league’s new policy on domestic violence.
After it was released I said this: I stand by the letter. It was a very strong letter. I stand by the policy because it sends a strong message. But the true test of how committed the NFL is to changing its culture and eliminating domestic violence is not the letter—it’s whether the league follows up on its programs and promises. Creating a policy was only Step 1.
The new policy has been in effect for 12 days. After the release of the Ray Rice video, and seeing Ray McDonald take the field for the San Francisco 49ers last week, I say this: We’re at Step 1 again. Week 2, Step 1. It’s not that the league regressed, it’s that it has yet to demonstrate it is fully committed to this issue.
When I watched the video of Janay Palmer and Ray Rice in the elevator, I was heartbroken. I feel for Janay. I want her to get support, and we all stand ready to help in any way. It felt awful to see this young woman knocked out cold and dragged out of the elevator, and to see it over and over again. I nearly cried. That is completely unacceptable behavior.
The NFL is an extremely powerful organization. Could they have obtained the video? Possibly. Either league officials chose not to see it, or did see it and somehow did not find it as reprehensible as it was. After seeing the hard evidence, it’s clear what happened between Janay Palmer and Ray Rice. The video told the story with such clarity, and after that you just can’t go back.
The truth is, the NFL should have gotten here faster. The fact that it didn’t shows there is still work to be done. My organization has been meeting with NFL representatives in the player engagement department for over a year in an effort to implement training and education programs for all NFL personnel, players and coaches included. If the NFL wants to fully eradicate domestic violence, they must first get their own house in order. We’re ready to help them do it.
I strongly disagree with how the 49ers and the NFL handled the Ray McDonald situation. He should have been sidelined, with pay, pending the adjudication of the case.
Do I feel duped by the NFL? Do I feel that they called us in as a PR move? No. I think they know what they are capable of; they just need to do it.
I listened to Ravens coach John Harbaugh speak last night. He said he really hopes this young couple can make it, and that they can work it out. That’s not for him to talk about. Maybe he can hold those views privately, but his public statement cannot be that. What he needs to say is, “This incident is horrific. It’s unacceptable. And it won’t be tolerated by the NFL.”
That’s the message that needs to get through. That’s what Goodell said his message would be with the new policy. It didn’t come out yesterday. The leaders of the institution—coach, GM, owner, commissioner of the NFL—should be speaking with a loud voice to say, We won’t tolerate it. They need to speak with a megaphone. They need to get it right. Our young people are listening to these leaders, whom they revere, and they are not sending the right message.
The culture needs to change in the locker room and on the field, and we need to give our young people the tools so they can have healthy relationships. That’s one of the strategies that my organization is encouraging—evidence-based violence prevention programs such as Coaching Boys Into Men.
Goodell already admitted to making a mistake with the initial handling of the Ray Rice situation. It’s time for him to speak again, with a loud voice, that he will do everything that he can to avoid that mistake again.
I strongly disagree with how the 49ers and the NFL handled the Ray McDonald situation. As a first test of the NFL’s domestic violence policy—less than 60 hours after it was announced—Ray McDonald should have been sidelined, with pay, pending the adjudication of the case. Look, I believe in due process. I got my start in the DA’s office in San Francisco. But consider this: In law enforcement, if an officer is under investigation, he or she is sitting out until the case is resolved.
That’s what needed to happen with Ray McDonald. Allowing him to play sent a very mixed message. It’s not just about due process. The 49ers should sideline him until the case is resolved. They can’t ignore the fact that he’s facing a felony charge for hitting a pregnant woman. It’s not just about the gotcha and the penalty, it’s about helping our young men and young women have healthy relationships.
In June 1994, O.J. Simpson was arraigned for the murder of his wife, a case that shocked our nation. That September, Congress passed the landmark Violence Against Women Act. I was a part of a small group of advocates—energized by movements all across the country—that helped Washington push that legislation through.
Today I am in Washington D.C. to, ironically, celebrate the Violence Against Women Act’s 20-year anniversary. I can’t help but think of how far we’ve come in the past two decades—and yet, how much more work we need to do. Before the 24/7 news cycle became flooded with the release of the Ray Rice video, my trip to Washington was to celebrate the Act and the 64% decrease in domestic violence among adult women. What the Ray Rice situation points out is that while we have changed some of the norms, we have to grapple what is going on in the world of sports.
Professional sports hold so much weight in influencing social norms and values in this country. It’s absolutely essential the NFL and other pro leagues say, loudly and strongly, There is no excuse for domestic violence and it will not be tolerated.
The NFL has the power, the resources and the influence to make a change. They need to step up now. Today is Step 1.
Esta Soler is the President of Futures Without Violence, a leading non-profit organization in the fight against domestic violence.