A Closer Look At The NFL's Domestic Violence Policy

Written by  Cedric Hopkins September 02, 2014
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Goodell “disciplined” Ray Rice with a two-game suspension, which was inappropriate. The public freaked out, which was appropriate.

In direct response to the public’s outcry over Rice’s suspension, Goodell wrote this letter to the NFL owners. 

Goodell mentioned the fans and/or the public six times in his letter to the NFL owners. The fans are even mentioned in the first sentence of the letter.

Goodell’s kneejerk letter was written simply to appease the public and created a flawed policy with respect to domestic violence.

Here’s the portion of the letter/policy regarding domestic violence punishment:

“Effective immediately, violations of the Personal Conduct Policy regarding assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault that involve physical force will be subject to a suspension without pay of six games for a first offense, with consideration given to mitigating factors, as well as a longer suspension when circumstances warrant. Among the circumstances that would merit a more severe penalty would be a prior incident before joining the NFL, or violence involving a weapon, choking, repeated striking, or when the act is committed against a pregnant woman or in the presence of a child.”

There are two key terms in Goodell’s statement that make the policy flawed: 1) “violations of the Personal Conduct Policy,” and 2) “physical force.”

Violations of the Personal Conduct Policy

First, the phrase “violations of the Personal Conduct Policy” is one that, when juxtaposed with the actual Personal Conduct Policy, has little bite with respect to domestic violence.

According to the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy, when the commissioner catches wind of “conduct that may give rise to discipline,” he can start his own investigation and impose appropriate punishment.

The policy differentiates first-time offenders from repeat offenders, however.

“Unless the available facts clearly indicate egregious circumstances, significant bodily harm or risk to third parties, or an immediate and substantial risk to the integrity and reputation of the NFL, a first offense generally will not result in discipline until there has been a disposition of the proceeding,” according to the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy.

Disposition of a criminal proceeding is defined in the policy as “an adjudication of guilt or an admission to a criminal violation; a plea to a lesser included offense; a plea of nolo contendere or no contest; or the disposition of the proceeding through a diversionary program, deferred adjudication, disposition of supervision, conditional dismissal or similar arrangements.”

The policy gives the NFL discretion to act prior to the legal outcome of a case, but makes it clear that, except for exceptional cases, won’t do so until the court case becomes final for a first offense.

The only time Goodell disciplined a player when no arrests, charges or convictions were obtained was with Ben Roethlisberger in 2010 when Roethlisberger was accused of sexually assaulting a college student. But that was not a “first offense” for the Steeler quarterback.

At the time of the 2010 suspension, another woman had claimed Roethlisberger sexually assaulted her. She was suing Big Ben civilly for the alleged incident. The NFL did not discipline Roethlisberger with respect to the 2008 allegations.

Big Ben_Smoke

The problem with the NFL’s policy as it relates to domestic violence is that most victims of domestic violence choose not to prosecute.

In the 200 or so domestic violence cases I’ve handled, only a handful actually resulted in some type of conviction. And that’s not because I’m some super lawyer—it’s because I knew beforehand that the victim wouldn’t show up for trial.

In the study, Factors Related to Domestic Violence Court Dispositions in a Large Urban Area: The Role of Victim/Witness Reluctance and Other Variables, Executive Summary. Washington D.C.:U.S. Department of Justice, 96-WT-NX-0004 National Institute of Justice, NCJ 184112, it was found that 70.5% of domestic violence cases in Ohio were dismissed because of victim “unavailability/failure to attend.”

Handling a domestic violence criminal case goes like this: 1) the client tells you he was charged with domestic violence; 2) you read the police report; 3) you look up and ask, “Will she show up for the trial?”

If the answer is “no,” then set it for trial and “win” the case. Without a victim, it’s much more difficult for the prosecutor to obtain a conviction. Not impossible, just more challenging.  

Even when there is a victim, approximately 30% of the time victims report that no assault occurred, contradicting statements made in police reports. Domestic violence victims often do not want any punishment to occur to their partner.

Therefore, the case is almost always dismissed at the beginning of trial because there is no victim to testify or the victim’s testimony would create reasonable doubt.

I mean just look at Rice’s wife—she all but apologized for getting in the way of her man’s uppercut.

Physical Force

The other issue with Goodell’s letter is the term, “physical force.”

Often times, domestic violence doesn’t involve “physical force,” but rather some other form of power and control.

It is as though the NFL is only concerned with addressing what the public viewed with respect to Ray Rice and not concerned with addressing the real issues surrounding domestic violence.

I’m not bashing the NFL for attempting to address a significant issue swirling around in the NFL. Kudos to Goodell for putting together a swift and seemingly severe policy. But in my opinion, the policy was rushed and didn’t take into account how domestic violence cases are actually handled in court.

Simply put, the NFL’s policy—for first time offenders—whiffs when it comes to real world domestic violence issues.

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Cedric Hopkins

Cedric Hopkins Bio

Cedric Hopkins runs this sports law/fantasy football blog. If you have issues with it, it's all his fault. Cedric was an athlete-student at the University of New Mexico (Basketball - Go Lobos!). He then morphed into a student-athlete when he attended law school in San Diego. Age replaced athleticism and now he writes appellate briefs for criminals (alleged criminals, of course) in state and federal cases, including writing U.S. Supreme Court briefs.

For years Cedric has researched and written about legal issues but maintained a love for sports. With FieldandCourt.com, he's combining his two passions: researching and writing about sports. When he's not in court arguing a case before a judge (or writing about himself in the third person), he'll be doing the same with his articles on FieldandCourt.com. Follow me, er, him on Twitter (opens in a new window).

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