What more can NFL teams do in investigating players with troubled pasts? Clearer direction from on high, especially from sex crimes expert Lisa Friel, may make a huge difference.
If the goal of the NFL's revamped conduct policy is a consistent standard when it comes to handling players with past domestic violence and sexual assault incidents or allegations, why does the league let each team follow its own vetting process in deciding whether to acquire players with troubling records?
It would seem too easy for the teams to ask only the questions they want answered of people who will tell them what they want to hear, a point the Bears and Seahawks have both been exposed on this off-season. The Seahawks were grilled about their research of second-round draft pick Frank Clark after disturbing new details emerged in the domestic violence case that Clark had pled out while at Michigan. Meanwhile, the Bears released Ray McDonald two months after signing him when the ex-49ers lineman was taken into custody on misdemeanor domestic violence and child endangerment charges, leaving team owner George McCaskey to backtrack on his justifications for signing a player with a history of domestic assault incidents.
“What more could I have done?” McCaskey asked on May 27. “Is there somebody else we could have consulted with? Should I have taken more time to make a decision? I don’t know. We thought we had a good structure, a good support system. We thought we had safeguards in place in case something like this happened.”
Those safeguards vary from team to team, and when the cases of McDonald and Clark become public flash points, the entire league takes the hit. NFL senior V.P. of labor policy and government affairs Adolpho Birch defended the league's deference to each team's discretion on my radio show last Saturday.
“I think it's incumbent on every club to do as thorough a job as they need to in order to make an informed decision,” Birch said. “That's for the decision to bring a player in, but also the decision to help, and make sure the resources are there. And if a person does have something in their past that might be of concern, appropriate resources are provided for that particular player. It's sort of a community effort to make sure we understand what's going on with what occurred or didn't occur in those types of situations, but I don't know that we would have a sort of 'one size fits all' system. Because clubs are different, and clubs view some of these matters differently. I think what we have to do is to encourage everybody, and give all the tools to the clubs to do the types of investigations, and the types of analysis, they need to do.”
That philosophy leads to a disconnect: The NFL is trying to enforce uniform standards of investigation and discipline of new domestic violence incidents while leaving the guidelines for scrutinizing past red flags up to the teams. The disappointing results of that freedom in Seattle and Chicago give the impression that teams will do as much as they need to do, instead of as much as is truly required.
Lisa Friel, a former prosecutor with the Manhattan district attorney's office who handled sexual assault investigations for decades, is now a senior advisor in charge of overseeing the league's own investigation of off-field incidents, and the NFL would do well to insert her expertise more consistently into what it currently considers to be a club concern. If there is any one voice with the authority to lay out firm guidelines on how these investigations are supposed to go, it's hers.
Friel understands the delicate nature of domestic violence and sexual abuse cases in ways that most front office employees can't, especially in dealing with victims. Friel discussed how she conducted these investigations in the past in an October 2014 interview with USA Today, before she was named to her current role.
“It's important to know where people are coming from as you hear the story,” Friel said. “From there it is, how do you know this person that you are saying did this bad thing to you? And then we go from there. We'll go through their prior contact with each other. If they had a prior relationship, what was their relationship? We're always assuring them when we do this, because people get very nervous, just because we're asking about your prior relationship with somebody, it doesn't mean we think that, for instance, if you used to have consensual sex with them, that on this occasion you didn't say no and it wasn't non-consensual, we just need to know the background and the context.”
It's crucial to have someone on board who understands how, and under what circumstances, to ask these sensitive questions, and maybe that knowledge can help avoid situations in which the accuser or victim's voice isn't heard for whatever reason. There may be specific reasons an accuser or victim doesn't want to speak, but teams have shown they need more guidance from high on how to approach these sensitive matters without either avoiding or steamrolling the key details.
Perhaps the ultimate solution is for teams to hand off any investigation of a player that involves domestic violence or sexual abuse to Friel, or defer to a committee assembled by Friel outside of the league's purview. The team employees in charge of discipline are clearly struggling with these complexities, and it's not entirely their fault—they're simply inexperienced in giving these matters the proper scrutiny, and that's a major problem.
This is a league that fines players thousands of dollars for wearing the wrong socks and forces them to cancel events in locations that don't meet league standards. Looking into a player with legal issues in his past should not be the moment to back off and let all 32 teams follow their own protocols. With the NFL's resources, it's inexcusable for anything less to happen—especially when an extensively qualified professional who's as likely as anyone to strike the right balance is already in the building.