If the chilling Ray Rice video released last week by TMZ demonstrates, graphically, what partner abuse looks like, then Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy’s situation exposes angles of domestic violence. It opens a window into how an assault can unfold, how the dynamics of high-profile cases play out and why a victim might be reluctant to go through the process of testifying against an alleged abuser. Maybe most damningly, it demonstrates why the NFL’s Domestic Violence Policy is no “policy” at all, given that it hinges on the degree of star power that a player possesses and the degree of publicity that his transgression has received. It raises a simple question: If there were video of Hardy assaulting his girlfriend, would he be playing on Sunday?
Knitting together interviews and public records, the narrative and fact pattern for Hardy is altogether different from that of Rice, but no less disturbing. One of the few points not in dispute from the early morning of last May 13: Hardy was upset. Hardy, now 26, was in the company of his then girlfriend, Nicole Holder, that night. Even during the heights of their coupling — when, for instance, Holder flew to Hawaii to accompany Hardy to the Pro Bowl — their relationship was volatile by any measure. But on that morning and on the night before, Hardy was particularly agitated.
According to Holder’s testimony in court, Hardy’s rage was first aroused that night when the speakers at a Charlotte club blasted a song by Nelly. During one of the lapses in her dating of Hardy, Holder, 24, had a brief romance with the rapper. Hearing the music of his ex-girlfriend’s former lover didn’t sit well with Hardy. He and Holder were still arguing when they returned to Hardy’s two-bedroom townhouse on Tryon Street in downtown Charlotte.
The pair was accompanied by Hardy’s childhood friend turned manager, Sammy Curtis, and his sometimes companion, Laura Iwanicki, as well as another couple, Christina Lawrence and a male friend, who retreated to a bedroom. A crowded after-party didn’t restrain Hardy. First he flung Holder onto a bed, then he threw her into a bathtub. Then he tossed her onto a futon covered with a cache of firearms. An inventory of the guns later filed with the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office revealed 10 semi-automatic rifles and shotguns. (In North Carolina, permits are not required for firearms other than handguns.) According to Holder, Hardy asserted that the rifles were loaded.
Next, Hardy ripped from Holder’s body a necklace that he had gifted her. He threw the jewelry into a toilet, and when Holder attempted to fish it out, Hardy slammed the lid on her arm. He then dragged her by the hair from room to room, she said, before putting his hands around her throat. “He looked me in my eyes and he told me he was going to kill me,” Holder later testified. “I was so scared, I wanted to die. When he loosened his grip slightly, I said, ‘Just do it. Kill me.’”
In the next room, Lawrence heard the commotion. She had never met Holder before that night. Alarmed, she ran to the building’s security desk and called 911.
“What’s going on?” the dispatcher asked.
“Domestic violence,” Lawrence responded frantically. “Do you hear that bulls---? He’s beating her a-- in there. Some girl’s getting her a-- beat upstairs and I heard it. And I seen it. He is beating her a-- right the f--- now. So get here now.”
Dispatchers reported that they’d received a separate 911 call from the same address minutes earlier. Hardy had called, claiming that a woman, presumably Holder, hit him in the face. He also said that he had needed the help of Curtis — who lists on his Facebook page that he works for Hardy’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus — to help restrain Holder. “She’s hit me in the face twice,” Hardy said. “She won’t get out. We’re trying to get her out of my house.” Hardy also told the dispatcher that he had videotaped the ordeal, a claim he would later retract.
Law enforcement officials arrived and, according to the police report, “the witness [Lawrence] stated several times, ‘Greg just beat the s--- out of her; he almost broke her arm. . .’ The victim [Holder] was crying and very upset. The victim had visual signs and swelling to both arms. Both elbows had scratches and welts. Minor cuts and scrapes and large areas of bruising and swelling were visible on her back.”
Emergency room photos reveal bruises on Holder’s foot, wrist, neck, chin, face, forearm, elbow and back. Holder, however, did not give a statement that night. Later, when asked why, she would respond: “[Hardy] had told me in past if I took food out of his family’s mouth he was going to kill me.”
Hardy was charged with assault on a female and with communicating threats. A judge issued a protective order and ordered three Alcoholic Anonymous meetings per week. As he waited in jail for his lawyers to post the $17,000 bail, Hardy missed a team function: The Panthers’ annual breakfast at Bank of America Stadium to raise money and awareness for combating domestic violence.
In the retelling, Roger Goodell was shamed by the public after handing down Ray Rice’s initial two-game suspension in July. While true, that overlooks the disgust that came from within the NFL family. “Well, I’m kind of disappointed that the NFL didn’t do their homework,” Roger Staubach, the Hall of Fame Cowboys quarterback, told SI. “I think, obviously, a lot of people do things when the public speaks out, and domestic violence should be at the top of the list of everything. There’s other domestic violence in the NFL.”
Forced out of the pocket and made to scramble, so to speak, Goodell moved quickly to add a domestic violence clause to the league’s code of conduct. In August, he summoned six domestic violence experts to his Manhattan office to air their grievances, express their concerns and help craft the new policy. “We were pretty honest with him,” says Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “We said that any suspensions had to be significant or they wouldn’t have an impact. And it was imperative for him to be consistent in all cases. If not, this all falls apart.”
Indeed, it didn’t take long for another one of the experts in the room that day, Esta Soler, to grow skeptical of the league’s commitment. “Proclaiming change is a good first step,” says Soler, president of the San Francisco-based Futures Without Violence. “But if you’re committed, you have to follow through.” Soler notes that a mere four days after the policy was trumpeted, 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald was arrested by San Jose police for allegedly beating his pregnant fiancée. A week later, as police continued their investigation, McDonald started the season opener against the Cowboys and played all 60 snaps, more than any other defensive lineman.
Soler wonders why McDonald wasn’t placed on the equivalent of paid leave. “Look, I believe in due process,” she says. “But consider this: In law enforcement, if an officer is under investigation, he or she is sitting out until the case is resolved.”
In declining to suspend McDonald, the NFL and the 49ers note that they are awaiting legal resolution.
But what makes the uninterrupted play of Hardy especially peculiar is this: There already has been disposition. In his case, the wheels of the criminal justice system spun with uncommon speed. On July 15, Hardy went before Becky Thorne Tin, a Harvard-educated Mecklenburg District judge. In a bizarre and sometimes tawdry one-day bench trial that lasted into the night, Hardy’s defense team and the local district attorney, Jamie Adams, offered competing narratives. Hardy was represented by Chris Fialko, a high-priced Charlotte defense lawyer who had previously represented Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth, convicted in 2001 on conspiracy to commit first degree murder in the killing of the mother of his child.
Fialko depicted Holder as unstable and seduced by Hardy’s fame. He accused her of concocting her story. There were intimations that she was interested in attaching herself to his wealth, though sources tell SI that Hardy was in dire financial straits as recently as last year. (Neither Hardy nor his agent, Rosenhaus, could be reached for comment.)
Hardy’s lawyers seemed surprised when Holder showed up to testify. They immediately asked for a break when she took the stand. Through state questioning and cross-examination, she spoke for close to an hour. At one point in the bench trial, Fialko questioned why Holder hadn’t been more seriously injured, given their size differential.
“You didn’t break a fingernail, did you?” he asked.
“I did break a fingernail, a toenail, ” she replied.
“Well, good,” Fialko said in response.
The lawyer suggested that Holder (who admitted during the trial that she’d used cocaine the evening of the altercation) had become enraged when Hardy told her to leave his apartment. Asked by the judge why the police had determined that a bruised woman — not a 280-pound NFL player — had been the victim, Fialko surmised that the police were “maybe gun-shy of doubting a woman.”
Tin gave Hardy a 60-day suspended sentence and 18 months probation on the misdemeanor charges. The judge called Holder a “consistent” and “credible witness.” She was less taken with Hardy, asserting that his 911 call had been a ruse and that he had lied repeatedly during his testimony. “The truth will stay the same,” she admonished, “but the lies will change.”
Under North Carolina state law, Hardy chose to appeal the decision to a jury trial, which requires a unanimous verdict from 12 empaneled peers. Pending that appeal, Hardy’s legal punishment was set aside. And he faced sanction from neither the NFL nor the Panthers, who on Friday reiterated their stance: They won’t consider any discipline until Hardy’s appeal is heard. Despite the conviction for the very crime that has triggered so much backlash against the league, he continues to play. “The Hardy matter is under review,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote in an email. “The case has not been resolved by the court.” Likewise, the Panthers have said that “the appeal is part of the legal process of the state.” A court date of November 17 has been set, though lawyers for Hardy and for the state express doubt that the case will be heard before 2015. Two weeks after the verdict, Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman continued referring to circumstances as “serious allegations.”
To some observers, this creates an unacceptable loophole. “This is a valid conviction and it’s based on the highest standard: beyond a reasonable doubt. He’s manipulating the system — North Carolina’s peculiar system — to his advantage,” says Steve Ward, a former Charlotte prosecutor and current law professor at Belmont Abbey (N.C.) College, who adds that less than five percent of bench trials are appealed. “And if the NFL is saying there hasn’t been disposition, I think they’re ducking the issue.”
An NFL source not deputized to speak on the matter noted that Hardy is a first-time offender. Yet, per the NFL Code of Conduct, the league can suspend first-time offenders under “egregious circumstances,” or if it believes a player is a threat to cause “significant bodily harm or risk to third parties.” That would certainly seem to apply here, given the fact pattern and public record.
Without mentioning Hardy by name, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson broached the issue of domestic violence earlier this week. While he was accepting a local honor, The Echo Award Against Indifference, Richardson’s voice caught as he said, “I stand firmly against domestic violence, plain and simple. To suggest we’ve been slow to act, I ask that you consider to not be too quick to judge.”
Other NFL teams have, by Richardson’s definition, judged quickly. In November 2013, Vikings cornerback A.J. Jefferson was arrested on a felony count of domestic assault by strangulation. On the day of the arrest, Minnesota cut Jefferson. (Later signed by the Seahawks, Jefferson pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of domestic assault and spent three days in jail.) It takes less than a cynic to point out that A.J. Jefferson does not come close to equaling the star wattage of Hardy, a franchise-tag player earning $13.1 million this season.
So the Kraken continues playing, unchecked.
Hardy made himself unavailable for comment this week. This was at odds with his demeanor earlier this year when he displayed disarming candor with SI. In a wide-ranging interview, Robert Klemko of The MMQB asked Hardy about his notorious ferocity. The player responded: “Once you piss me off, I forget everything. Everything after that is the monster. I’m going to take you out. When you cross that line, I’m going to take it to a place you’ve never been before.”