Will the NFL’s new policies help tackle domestic violence?

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Can we ever get the images of Ray Rice punching his fiancée and dragging her out of an elevator out of our heads? The NFL has a lot to atone for. The sports dynasty pulls in $10 billion dollars a year, made from tough hits and aggressive plays. But they looked callous over their handling of partner assault and child abuse.  Now there's a new sheriff in town at the NFL -- and things are shifting.

Three women are killed every day by a current or former partner. 15.5 million children are exposed to domestic violence every year.  One in four women and one in seven men are victim of severe physical violence.  With so much attention being focused on the Super Bowl this Sunday, the question is what has the NFL done to protect women and children in their players’ families?

Several NFL players have became the poster children for bad behavior after being charged with domestic violence, child abuse and other violent offenses. Their actions were also the catalysts that have begun to change a testosterone-drenched sport that celebrates tough guys handing out hard hits.

The NFL said they want to clean up their act and prevent abuse, and hired Lisa Friel, who spent decades leading the sex crimes unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.  “We’re looking to be socially responsible,” said Friel, whose mandate was to change the culture of American football.

“I think all our employees at teams and league office can be aware of them and intervene earlier,” says Friel about the league’s initial push.

They’re starting with mandated employee education sessions that are one hour long, and feature some moving first person accounts from players who’ve been impacted by violence at home.  They also got behind the #NoMore PSA campaign to highlight it’s everyone’s responsibility to speak up and stop family violence and assault; it’s been seen by nearly one billion people.

Friel points out that many are eager to be a part of the change as well.  “So few (of these players) are committing these offenses, but they’re all being painted with a broad brush, that they’re all beating their wives and beating their girlfriends. We have over 3,000 players a year that come through the league. It matters to us and we don’t want any amount of people doing it.”

Not only has the NFL gotten tougher with a new personal conduct clause in August of 2014, applied to every single NFL employee, but they also provide support services to both alleged victim and alleged perpetrator. The players’ union is fighting the changes, but the NFL is currently suspending any player, with pay, if charged by a District Attorney with a violating crime. A six game suspension without pay for conviction, and can be fired after a second offense.  The strong message, Friel says, is working. “At end of 2015, our arrests of players overall, not just domestic violence, our arrests are down 40%.  That’s a huge drop.  “We’ve had a real deterrent effect.”

Friel was hired in the wake of the Ray Rice debacle by NFL commissioner Roger Goddell.  She leads her own investigations now into these offenses,  rather than letting the criminal justice system slowly churn through them. It’s a direct response to the league’s disastrous handling of Rice assaulting his then-fiancée Janay in an Atlantic City casino elevator and subsequent slap-on-the-wrist punishment.

Would things work differently today in the Ray Rice case? Friel doesn’t hesitate.  “Yes. Today we would start an investigation immediately.  Previously, they started to gather evidence, but now we go further, we push that to limit of law to gather evidence.”

Yet there have been unexpected blessings to the media firestorm over NFL abusers.  “It’s great.  There’s a national awareness on domestic violence because of the NFL’s focus,” says Jaime Bedard of “STEPS” to End Family Violence in Harlem.  She stresses not all family abuse plays out in such public ways.  It can happen behind closed doors, through financial control, sexual abuse at home, there are many ways.  “It shows as a pattern of abusive and coercive behavior to maintain power and control in the relationship.”

The NFL is also now committed to giving $25 million to domestic violence causes—looking to bring safety and winning environment to more homes.  As Friel says, “In the end we all want the same thing. We don’t want the players involved in these behaviors.“

Donating $5 million a year for 5 years is a good start.  But with an annual income of $10 billion, then NFL has room to grow its commitment.  And what they're doing has the chance to truly impact all of us, with one in four women and one in seven men being the victims of severe physical violence from a partner .

If you need help, reach out to these resources: http://www.nyc.gov/html/ocdv/html/help/fjc.shtml.