Two years ago, Anna Isaacson helped create the Women’s Interactive Network at NFL headquarters, focused on career development for women working for the league. Last week, commissioner Roger Goodell addressed that group. Employees at Park Avenue and from across the country, including NFL Films in Mt. Laurel, N.J. and NFL Network in Culver City, Calif., conferenced in. The league has come under fire for its handling of the Ray Rice case and other high-profile domestic violence incidents, and some of Goodell’s staff, particularly the approximately 200 members of WIN, had questions for him.
“He spoke candidly, from the heart and was emotional,” Isaacson said. “The message was, Please believe that we are committed to this and we are going to make a difference. We know that we let you down, but we are going to make it right.”
Isaacson, who was tabbed for the newly created vice president of social responsibility position, will be front and center in helping the league follow through on the commitment it has made. First on the agenda is reforming the personal conduct policy to strengthen and clarify the way in which players are penalized for their actions off the field. But perhaps just as important will be the league’s role in addressing issues like domestic violence and sexual assault from a second angle—prevention and support.
The first step: Friday morning, each of the league’s 32 clubs received a memo listing two to four support organizations in their community, including contact information, and suggestions of how to partner with those groups. The lists included the state coalitions through the National Network to End Domestic Violence, and local resource centers for domestic violence and sexual assault.
Rita Smith, one of the outside experts hired by the NFL to advise its social responsibility team, started compiling the lists nearly a month ago, after the NFL originally announced an enhanced domestic violence policy on Aug. 28. “Something small,” she said at the time, “that could have an enormous impact.”
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An example of the early work being done: Isaacson’s team spent an hour last week meeting with Judy Harris Kluger, executive director of the New York-based Sanctuary for Families, asking questions about the clinical, legal, shelter and educational resources her group provides, and how the NFL could draw on those resources. Kluger described recent work Sanctuary has done to involve men in the quest to end domestic violence.
“Most recently what we are saying is, no one can be a bystander,” Kluger said. “We did a forum about engaging men in the fight against domestic violence, and that was the message. That is men; that is women; that is the players and the owners and everybody who works in an organization.
“It was very disheartening to hear that when Ray Rice took the field again [during the preseason], team members were cheering and clapping. That is opposite of being a bystander no more. That is really not understanding the issue.”
In October, a seminar Isaacson calls “Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault 101” will be held at each of the 32 teams’ facilities. The format will be similar to the “respect at work” campaign, in which three or four league representatives taught an hour-long program with coaches, players and team personnel about behaviors that will not be tolerated and what resources are available if outside help is needed.
“The NFL stands alone in the opportunity to make a real change in the culture,” Gandy said. “But it will require a real commitment, not just a one or two-year campaign when they’re under the media spotlight.”
During the offseason, Isaacson said, the next step will be training people within each organization—player engagement directors, human resources directors and security directors—who are on the front lines and can identify warning signs or risk factors for cases of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Offering resources and education is one thing. Of course, making sure they are taken seriously and getting to the right people is another. On most NFL teams, the player engagement and community relations departments who have direct contact with the wives, mothers and women’s clubs will play a role.
Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich, whose fiancée experienced domestic violence as a child, could be among player spokesmen. (LM Otero/AP)
One idea suggested so far is hanging signs with some of these resources in locker rooms, similar to the signs reminding players of the gameday uniform regulations. Troy Vincent, who previously headed the
NFL’s player engagement department and is now the executive VP of football operations, wants players to help deliver the messages, perhaps by recording PSA-type videos. Steelers cornerback William Gay, whose mother was killed by his stepfather when he was a child, and Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich, whose fiancée’s experience with domestic violence in her childhood spurred him to work with a local prevention group, would be strong spokesmen.
“The reality is the NFL, like other sports organizations, is now part of the dialogue on social issues,” Vincent said. “That wasn’t the NFL of the mid-90s, of the 80s, of the 70s. But we are at a different place now, and the expectations of our fans, the expectations of our players, are much different.”
Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, has worked in the domestic violence prevention field for 40 years. The public dialogue that has been generated around domestic violence in the wake of the Ray Rice case and the graphic elevator video of him knocking out his then-fiancée with a left hook, is unlike any other Gandy has seen. Not even the O.J. Simpson case had this effect, she said.
That was reflected in the 84% uptick in calls to the National Domestic Violence Hotline since Sept. 8, when the Rice elevator video was released. It happened at the local level, too: The Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence had a 77% increase in calls to its emergency hotline during the same timeframe, Gandy said. The increased awareness has prompted more women to seek help, and the NFL forged partnerships with the national hotline as well as the National Sexual Violence Resource Center to help them add staff and services. The Colts pitched in on a local level, donating the proceeds of their 50/50 raffle at their Sept. 15 home game to the Indiana coalition.
“The NFL stands almost alone in the opportunity to make a real change in the culture,” Gandy said. “If they take it seriously and really do a long-term, focused campaign that uses the celebrity power they have to change the way young people, especially young athletes, view masculinity and violence, it will be life-changing for generations. But it will require a real commitment on the part of the NFL, a sustained effort, not just a one or two-year campaign when they’re under the media spotlight.”
The NFL had taken some steps to address domestic violence and sexual assault prior to the events of this summer. The NFL LifeLine and Total Wellness Program offered similar resources to players and their families confidentially, and the league’s player engagement department created a Women’s Resource Guidebook that includes information on counseling and crisis needs. But many people in the league office weren’t aware of efforts on these fronts until recently. Only now is the NFL pledging to throw its weight behind these issues, and back that up with tougher punishments for players who perpetrate these acts.
The annual breast cancer awareness campaign, when teams and players dot the field with pink each October to raise awareness and funds for the American Cancer Society, is an example of how the NFL can use its platform to rally behind a cause. Isaacson said the breast cancer campaign will continue next month, though CBS Sports reported one partner company, Procter & Gamble, canceled its involvement due to the scrutiny over the league’s handling of recent domestic violence cases.
This could be a template for the NFL, introducing purple gear, the color for domestic violence awareness. “It may look completely different from how we have done it for breast cancer awareness or Play 60 or Salute to Service, but that is on the table,” Isaacson said.
The pledge Goodell made, to the female employees inside that room and to the public, will be tested in the weeks, months and years ahead.