The NFL Domestic Violence Committee Has A Race Problem

In a league dominated by African-American players, the NFL’s first domestic violence initiative is led by four white women. How could this oversight happen?

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Nov 6 2014, 5:20pm

Photo by Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

When the Ray Rice scandal became too big for the NFL's PR Machine to handle, Commissioner Roger Goodell rose to the occasion in his usual heroic fashion and announced a four-member committee that would "shape the NFL's policies and programs relating to domestic violence and sexual assault." This month, the committee is expected to roll out a new policy, as well as presentations for players, coaches, and other team staff on identifying and preventing future domestic violence cases. But, consider this: in a league that's dominated by African-American players, the NFL's first major domestic violence initiative is being led by four white women.

African-American women experience intimate partner violence at a rate 35 percent higher than white women, and 22 times the rate of women of other races. Domestic violence situations escalating into death are also almost three times more likely to occur with black women as compared to white women. By not including any women of color on the panel, the NFL committed a horrible oversight.

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The fact that the NFL committee entrusted to address these grave issues doesn't reflect the racial dynamic that plays out in society is bad decision-making to say the least. And if Goodell missed the point—just as he did by interviewing Ray and Janay Rice in the same room—Anna Isaacson, the 35-year-old chair of the NFL panel, should have been the first to ask this question: "Wait, I'm going to head an NFL domestic violence committee that includes no black women?"

The oversight should have been easy enough to catch. When Goodell announced the panel, the Black Women's Roundtable, a national group of civic leaders, had this to say about his decision: "Your lack of inclusion of women of color, especially black women who are disproportionately impacted by domestic violence and sexual assault; and the fact that over 66 percent of the NFL players are made up of African-Americans is unacceptable." They also noted that the groups the league intends to work with on the issue don't have a foothold in black communities.

And while the league brought onboard three seasoned women—Lisa Friel, former head of sex-crimes prosecution in Manhattan, Jane Randel, co-founder of domestic violence advocacy group NO MORE, and Rita Smith, the former executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence—they're led by Isaacson, whose only experience with the issue before joining the league was participating in awareness marches as a college undergrad. Isaacson would have you believe that they are consulting a black woman, Deana Garner, the league's director of player engagement and education, but she was never named to the committee nor does she have a formal role.

Promoted to the position of vice president of social responsibility, Isaacson has the final say on the committee, but hers is the voice of an NFL loyalist who has Roger Goodell for a boss.

"I don't have control over everything, clearly," Isaacson told ESPN recently. "But you have to have a voice and be able to speak up when you believe in something and fight for it. The last couple weeks have given me a greater voice to do that."

But this isn't just about Isaacson. It's about the entire committee. Given the NFL's centralized power structure, and how badly it needed to do something in the wake of its domestic violence crises, one has to wonder how much authority this panel, whoever sits on it, will actually have. Or whether it's all just a matter of optics.