The NFL has started to hold its players more accountable for domestic abuse cases, but team owners don't seem to be getting the message.
Back in October 2014, the NFL gave its owners a “very thorough” presentation on domestic violence, including showing them a video featuring former pro Joe Ehrmann imploring owners to do their part to help combat violence against women. After the presentation, the NFL made owners and league staff available to the media to tout the effectiveness of the program and the details of the NFL’s new personal conduct policy, aimed at harsher penalties for players who commit acts of violence against women. Lisa Friel, a widely-respected expert in the domestic violence community, went as far as to say the owners were “laser-focused” on the presentation.
One year later, with the public outcry over Ray Rice’s two-game suspension a distant memory, a rash of comments from NFL owners like Jerry Jones and George McCaskey—insensitive at the very least, downright misogynist at worst — beg the question of just how much NFL owners learned from that presentation, and who the league should be targeting with their domestic violence initiative.
Just two months after the presentation, on Dec. 17, 2014, the San Francisco 49ers released defensive tackle Ray McDonald, following what the team called a “pattern of poor decision making.” More accurately, police went to McDonald’s residence on multiple occasions due to reports of domestic violence, culminating with an August 2014 arrest for causing visible injuries to his fiancée, who just happened to be pregnant at the time. But it wasn’t until McDonald was accused of sexual assault by an entirely different woman that the 49ers finally decided enough was enough, and cut McDonald from the team.
Apparently, enough wasn't enough for Vic Fangio, the 49ers’ former defensive coordinator who coached McDonald in San Francisco who then moved to Chicago to run the defense under newly hired head coach John Fox. Fangio recommended McDonald — at this point under investigation for a sexual assault in Santa Clara County — to Fox and general manager Ryan Pace. McDonald flew himself to Chicago on his own dime — conduct which, inexplicably, greatly impressed Bears chairman George McCaskey, son of owner Virginia McCaskey. Shortly thereafter, McDonald became the newest member of the Chicago Bears.
Surely, the signing of a guy accused of sexual assault and domestic battery by two different women raised eyebrows (and with good reason), but it was McCaskey’s comments about the team’s vetting process of McDonald that would launch the signing controversy into the stratosphere.
When asked why the Bears were willing to take a chance on McDonald in the wake of the Ray Rice scandal, McCaskey told reporters:
An alleged victim, I think — much like anybody else who has a bias in this situation — there’s a certain amount of discounting in what they have to say. But our personnel department had done its work looking into the background and the incidents. And we had the benefit of two coaches who had been with him with the 49ers. And I spoke to Vic Fangio and came away very impressed with what Vic had to say about him — that he’s well-liked by his teammates, by his coaches. His strong work ethic — that he’s considered a leader on the field. And speaking to Vic and Ray especially, I was convinced that he’s sufficiently motivated to make this work.
McCaskey went on to admit that the “work” the Bears personnel department did looking into the allegations against McDonald did not include reaching out to the accusers, the police, or the District Attorney handling the sexual assault case. Instead, the team spoke to McDonald’s parents, friends, and former coaches, all on McDonald’s recommendation.
The message from the Bears was clear: When it came to examining players’ backgrounds, the testimony of those close to the player would be accepted. The word of those accusing the player of violence against women would be discounted due to “bias.”
On May 25, 2015, McDonald was arrested in California on charges of domestic battery and child endangerment. He was released by the Bears on May 26. On May 27 — the very next day! — McDonald was arrested again; this time for violating a restraining order stemming from the May 25 arrest. In August, McDonald was indicted by a grand jury on one count of raping an intoxicated woman.
In addition to McCaskey, there have been other incidents in front offices around the league. Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson infamously teared up giving a speech about standing against domestic violence, while at the same time refusing to bench Greg Hardy, even after Hardy had been convicted by a North Carolina judge on charges of choking his girlfriend, pulling her hair and slamming her arm in a toilet seat. The Baltimore Ravens suggested that Janay Rice apologize for “her” role in being cold-cocked in an Atlantic City elevator.
But time passes. NFL seasons resume. People forget. Cheering violent hits on the field replaces concern about violent behavior off it.
Which brings us to back to Hardy, Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys, the definitive example of everything twisted and wrong in the NFL’s handling of violence against women. Upon his return to the NFL after serving a four-game suspension over horrific allegations of abuse — including physically throwing his girlfriend onto a futon covered with assault rifles — a defiant Hardy declared he was ready to come out “guns blazing” in his Week 5 return.
He didn’t stop there. While he deflected questions about what he had learned during his time away from the league. Hardy was more than happy to demonstrate that his views of women hadn’t changed much, saying:
“I love seeing Tom Brady. He’s cool as crap. You seen his wife? I hope she comes to the game. I hope her sister comes to the game. [I hope] all her friends come to the game.”
And while most owners and front office would be horrified by Hardy’s tone-deaf comments on an issue the league has struggled with for the last 18 months, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was equally flip in his remarks about Hardy’s statements:
“When I saw him marry her [Gisele], Tom went up in my eyes 100%. She’s very very attractive and it shows what an outstanding individual Tom is.”
And, just like that, the Dallas Cowboys, who continue to maintain a page on their website dedicated to minimizing the charges against Hardy, changed the conversation from one about violent crimes against women to one about which NFL player has the most enviable wife.
While much of the press coverage of the NFL’s new domestic violence program has centered around the training the players have received, it’s clear that the NFL owners and front office personnel need education in the dynamics of domestic violence and sexual assault as much as the players do, and possibly more.
NFL owners are the ones who continue to give “second chances” to abnormally strong men with a history of hurting women. They are the ones who bring players to their communities and unleash them on a population of unsuspecting potential victims, having assured the fan base that the they believe their player was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, or a victim of poor decision-making.
Five weeks into the season, the “No More” anti-domestic violence ads are nowhere to be seen during games, and all indications are that both the league and the public have moved on from the outrage that, for a brief moment, seemed poised to foist real change upon the NFL. Unsurprisingly, the system that allows the Ray McDonalds and Greg Hardys of the league to move from team to team (despite the violence of which they are accused) persists in the casual sexism of Jones’ and McCaskey’s clear belief that accusers are biased against the players who battered them and Richardson’s tissue paper-thin stand against domestic violence.
Until the men with the real power in the NFL are held accountable for their self-serving enablement of their players, “No More” will continue to resonate as “No More Talking About This Stuff, OK?”