The NFL Finally Takes Violence Against Women Seriously

The NFL has been serious in disciplining players for self-destructive behavior, such as substance abuse, but has treated destructive actions toward others such as domestic violence and sexual assaults more lightly. This double standard is finally being addressed in the context of the lenient suspension levied in the Ray Rice episode.

Commissioner Goodell is attempting to rectify his under reaction to the domestic violence incident involving Rice, and in preemptively considering future suspensions, he is wisely expanding the umbrella of penalties for all incidents of physical violence including sexual assaults. This is especially relevant, because in the past some NFL players have committed egregious crimes against women including sexual assault on minors, gang rape, and assaulting their pregnant wives or girlfriends.

The prevalence of domestic violence has reached epidemic proportions among the professional athlete population and is sometimes condoned within their culture as simple lapses of misbehavior (e.g. Ravens coach John Harbaugh described the Rice incident as "It's not a big deal ... I stand behind him").

There are two primary factors that fuel this type of transgression among athletes: the conditioning factor and the background factor. Psychologically, sports stars are conditioned to develop a view of themselves as special and entitled to do relationships on their terms. From the time he threw that first touchdown pass in pee wee football, the celebrity athlete is catered to, coddled, and adored by hero-hungry admirers. In essence many of them become programmed to embrace what I refer to as the acquired distorted self image. Their private persona may crystallize around such personality traits as arrogance, grandiosity, and entitlement, and their relationships tend to be skewed toward having their needs met first and foremost.

Athletes who are accustomed to having their needs met quickly and without resistance often have knee jerk, impulsive, physical responses when they do not get their way. They may feel threatened when their need to be dominant and in control in their relationships is challenged, and they frequently overreact in a violent manner. Moreover, since there is a premium on aggressive behavior in their football careers, this M.O. can easily carry over into their personal relationships when they feel thwarted. These issues can predispose celebrity athletes to become repeat offenders, and the new NFL personal conduct policy is designed to severely penalize these transgressors.

The second predisposing factor for athletes who are most at risk for domestic violence is that many sports stars have emerged from a background in which conflicts in relationships lead to violent solutions. Former NFL heroes Troy Vincent and Vance Johnson have described the toxic environment in which domestic violence was a way of life in their community, and physically abusive treatment of women was internalized as a central dimension in their relationships.

A potential problem is disciplining NFL players involved in domestic violence episodes is that in many cases the victim withdraws her complaint or refuses to testify. Concerns about retribution, the need to protect her husband's image and thereby safeguard her financial security, a fear of the legal system, and the feeling that she deserved to be mistreated, are among the chief reasons why these women back away from pressing charges. In a highly publicized case in 1995 NFL future Hall of Famer, Warren Moon, was charged and then acquitted of spousal abuse when his wife asserted that she was to blame for their violent domestic incident. Warren Moon privately and publicly apologized for his role in the "domestic dispute" and also made a point of citing a study which indicated that 35 percent of domestic violence incidents are provoked by the woman.

In his letter to the NFL team owners, Roger Goodell declared that to be considered as an "offense" a player would not necessarily have to be convicted in a court of law, but that each incident would be judged on its own merits. Unfortunately, history tells us that by and large NFL players are not prone to learn from the mistakes of other players, and it is likely that incidents of abuse toward women will continue to proliferate. Is Goodell prepared to go all-out in issuing six game or lifetime suspensions to high profile stars in the present era?

In the throes of the widespread criticism of the lenient suspension in the Ray Rice case, Goodell has stated "I didn't get it right." He has absolute power as judge and jury in determining the penalties for off the field misconduct. In future situations he could be at risk again for not getting it right. The NFL would be on more solid footing if Goodell appointed a panel to work with him in evaluating future incidents, rather than being the sole authority in such matters. An effective commissioner is not required to be a dictator.