The NFL Domestic Violence Firestorm: "There Are No Sidelines, Only Sides"

I've often said that domestic violence is a silent epidemic. We have arrived at a teachable moment.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

I've often said on my show that domestic violence is a silent epidemic. Right now, in the aftermath of the NFL controversy surrounding several players' involvement in domestic abuse cases, it's anything but silent. We have arrived at a teachable moment in America for both adults and children.

Since the sickening video surfaced of Baltimore Ravens' running back Ray Rice knocking out his then-fianceé — now his wife — Janay Palmer, and then dragging her unconscious body out of a hotel elevator, the domestic violence firestorm has outraged the nation. That was just one instance, but the facts are that every minute in America, 24 people are harmed by an intimate partner. That's 1,440 people an hour. 34,560 a day. More than 12 million every year. And, this is probably the single most underreported crime in America, so those numbers are most likely very low. It is beyond time for all of us to do everything we can to stop this ugly reality.

I think too many people are distracted by the old questions: "What did they know, and when did they know it?" Does it really matter? Did they really need to see video to know that a man, a player, knocking his then-fianceé out cold is a serious problem that is at odds with what any organization should find acceptable. Those are the wrong questions! At this point, it doesn't make a damn bit of difference what they knew and when they knew it when it comes to the tape. Come on, tape or no tape, the man told them enough about what happened for them to take full action. So let's not get bogged down with a debate that can't help us push this critical conversation forward.

The questions we need to be asking are: Will the NFL send a clear message that domestic violence is an absolute and unequivocal deal breaker; will they put action and policy behind those words; and what can the rest of us do to help the countless victims who suffer — including 15.5 million children every year who are exposed to domestic violence in their homes?

Let's start with the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell. When it comes to domestic violence, there are no sidelines, only sides. You either put profits and on-field performance ahead of human dignity by hiding bad actions so as not to embarrass the "brand," or you are boldly intolerant of this kind of abuse. It's that simple. Every player, coach and owner has a chance here to be a role model by saying firmly: "We have a moral compass. Violence is unacceptable and will not be tolerated, period."

Look, I'm not trying to bash the NFL. (I went to college on a football scholarship ... barely and came nowhere close to playing in the NFL, obviously!) I think it's an incredible institution full of fine people. But it's also a $250 billion industry that has a tremendous responsibility — now more than ever. They need to stop deflecting, own their failure to act appropriately, and step up.

The NFL is taking some action but they are still dropping the ball. Just yesterday, Carolina Panthers' Greg Hardy, who was convicted of assaulting and threatening his ex-girlfriend, took a voluntary leave of absence. But he also played in the season opener months after the conviction! Likewise, Minnesota Vikings' Adrian Peterson was barred from his team after being indicted on charges of "reckless or negligent injury" to his 4-year-old son. But that decision was a reversal only after sponsors, the Governor and the public put on the heat. And Ray McDonald of the San Francisco 49ers, who was arrested on suspicion of felony domestic violence (but has not been charged and remains free), is still on the field.

Listen, I believe that you're innocent until proven guilty, and I believe in the due process of the law. But when it comes to protecting those who cannot protect themselves, such as women and children targeted with physical violence by bigger and stronger men, we have to be extraordinarily vigilant to protect them. When things get physical there is an imbalance of power because men are just built differently. Like I said, Mr. Commissioner, there are no sidelines, only sides. Pick the right one and take action. And don't just threaten the players and coaches. How about, for example, developing programs that provide players with the coping and relationship skills they need off the field, too?

Domestic violence is not just an NFL problem — far from it. In fact, some statistics suggest it is less prevalent in the league than in society in general. But because of the high profile of these "Sunday Heroes," this is a teachable moment for all of us. It's a wake-up call to remind us that an estimated 25 percent of American women experience domestic violence. It's an opportunity for the world to know that three women are killed daily in America from domestic violence incidents. And it's a call to arms because we all have a responsibility to do something about it.

As for me, in addition to testifying on Capitol Hill last year in support of re-authorizing the Violence Against Women Act, I pledge to continue talking about this critical epidemic. At Dr. Phil, we have dedicated hundreds of hours of programming over the past 13 years to the issues that plague our country, with domestic violence at the top of that list. We created a campaign called "End the Silence on Domestic Violence," and my wife, Robin, has created a foundation, When Georgia Smiled, that is 100% dedicated to helping women and children affected by domestic violence. Their first project was to develop a cutting-edge education program called the Aspire Initiative and the free Aspire News app. Both completely free and both with the potential to save lives. These tools have spread like wildfire! Find out more about both here.

On the Dr. Phil show this very day, I'm talking to Ray Rice's friend and former Ravens teammate, Chris Johnson, along with his wife Mioshi, who is Janay Palmer's good friend. They open up about what and how Ray and Janay have been doing. Sadly, both Chris and Mioshi have tragically lost close family members to domestic violence.

I think we have yet another teachable moment here when it comes to the way we treat victims — many of whom have self-esteem that's been ripped to shreds, who have been isolated from loved ones, and who live in fear every single day. They need our support and compassion, not criticism and judgment! Nobody agrees with me more on that point than Beverly Gooden, who created the #WhyIStayed hashtag that went viral. So today, I'll be talking to Beverly as well about why she was outraged by the onslaught of criticism about Janay's decision to stay with her abusive husband, and why it's critical for women to have a plan before they walk away or confront their abuser. Did you know that victims of domestic violence attempt to leave an average of seven times before they are able to successfully make a permanent break — and it's at that point that they're actually in the most danger? In fact, 50 percent of women who are murdered in domestic violence situations lose their life after they leave their abuser. We've all got a lot to learn — and a lot to do.

I hope you'll be watching (here's a preview), but more importantly, I hope that we'll all soon see the NFL take a leadership position and a firm stance on the issue of domestic violence. And I hope that the rest of us join the conversation about domestic violence and heed this call for action.