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I’m done helping the NFL pay lip service to domestic violence prevention

  • Author: Deborah Epstein
    | Opinion
  • Updated: June 5
  • Published June 5

Feb 4, 2018; Minneapolis, MN, USA; General view of the opening kickoff in Super Bowl LII between the Philadelphia Eagles and the New England Patriots at U.S. Bank Stadium.  (James Lang-USA TODAY Sports)

On May 23, I resigned from the NFL Players Association's commission on domestic violence. Susan Else, former president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, resigned with me. I simply cannot continue to be part of a body that exists in name only.

My resignation brought to an end a nearly four-year association with the NFLPA that was, by turns, promising, inspiring and deeply frustrating. The commission was formed as part of the sport's belated effort to confront the plague of domestic violence in the National Football League. The precipitating event was, of course, the viral release of a security video from an Atlantic City casino showing then-Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancee unconscious in an elevator and then dragging her through the doors.

When representatives of the players association approached me with the idea of organizing an official effort to study and rectify the NFL's domestic violence epidemic, I was thrilled. Several years ahead of the #MeToo awakening in American professional life, I believed the commission, as a project sponsored by an organization representing the players themselves, would be positioned to address head-on the serious problem of intimate-partner violence among NFL couples and families.

I spent the first year enthusiastically attending meetings and helping the commission make connections with the advocacy community. I worked with Lisa Goodman, a Boston College research psychologist with experience working with survivors of intimate-partner violence, to conduct a national study of players' wives and their suggestions for dealing with family violence in this particular, high-profile community. At the NFLPA's insistence, we signed a confidentiality agreement that prevents us from publicly discussing our research findings. But we made numerous systematic recommendations of concrete steps that would go a long way toward dramatically lowering the risk of domestic violence in professional football.

That study was completed two years ago, in June 2016. Since then, despite my numerous requests, the commission has met only three times. As of our last meeting, the NFLPA had not implemented any of the reforms proposed in our study.

I also have made several other suggestions for commission projects that could help reduce intimate-partner violence in the domain of professional football. In recent weeks, as I reviewed my correspondence with the players association, a deflating pattern emerged. My NFLPA contacts would initially greet these ideas with a burst of enthusiasm and an indication of likely implementation, but efforts to follow up would yield nothing in the way of specific plans, and eventually communication would fade into radio silence.

Meanwhile, we continue to see allegations of NFL players committing acts of domestic violence. Last spring, at least a half-dozen new players were invited to join NFL teams even as they were facing outstanding court cases based on alleged physical or sexual assaults, many committed against intimate partners. The Cincinnati Bengals drafted running back Joe Mixon, despite publicly available video footage of Mixon punching a woman so hard at a restaurant that four bones in her face were broken. This year, the Cleveland Browns drafted Antonio Callaway, who faced sexual assault allegations at the University of Florida. (Callaway was found "not responsible" in a Title IX hearing in 2016 that was boycotted by his accuser because the hearing officer who presided over the case was also a booster of the school's athletic program.)

When I was asked to join the commission, I told NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith that I was leery of associating with an organization that might just be paying lip service to the defining issue of my career — so that, in essence, the NFLPA could say it was confronting domestic violence abuses long enough for the Rice story to fall out of the news cycle. Smith assured me, repeatedly, that this commission would be a serious working group and that our efforts would help produce necessary reforms. But clearly that has not been the case. Authorizing a single study, and then burying it through a confidentiality agreement and shelving its recommendations, does not constitute meaningful reform. Because I care deeply about violence against women in the NFL and beyond, I can no longer continue to be part of a commission that is essentially a fig leaf.

And the NFLPA's response to my letter of resignation? A one-line email thanking me for my service but failing to acknowledge or respond to any of the substantive points set forth. The email was short, but its message couldn't have been clearer: The NFL Players Association is no longer interested in even making a public show of concern about violence against women — a point driven home more forcefully during each new NFL draft season.

Deborah Epstein is a professor of law and co-director of the Georgetown University Law Center's Domestic Violence Clinic.

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