What the NFL Can and Should Do about Domestic Violence

The NFL says it wants to be a leader in the domestic violence space. Plenty of domestic violence experts are willing to step up and tell them how to do just that.

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Feb 24 2015, 3:17pm

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee State University men's basketball coach Dana Ford is unapologetically blunt with his recruits. Not about winning, not about the player's role in his system, not about their professional prospects, but about something far more important. He tells the recruits, "We're not going to tolerate abuse against women in any kind of way."

It doesn't stop there. From the very first meeting, Ford reminds the entire team about the role all men play in preventing abuse against women. They have to watch out for each other and their friends. Good men have to intervene when they see something. He'll remind them throughout the season, whether it's by speaking to them again during team meetings or printing out articles from the papers and displaying them around the locker room. For Ford, it's not an issue of the program's reputation or making sure none of his best players lose their scholarships. This is not about sports.

Read More: The NBA Just Showed the NFL How to Handle Domestic Violence Cases

Given how Roger Goodell botched the Ray Rice investigation and punishment—especially his decision to interview Ray and Janay Rice at the same time—there was good reason to deride his proclamation that he would become "a leader in the domestic violence space." Despite Goodell's somewhat encouraging promises in late August regarding league efforts and reforms, recent weeks have provided only more reason for skepticism. Deadspin's Diana Moskovitz described the NFL's main partner, No More, as "a branding campaign" akin to Pinktober, the NFL's breast cancer awareness campaign that doesn't actually give any money to breast cancer research.

Ray and Janay Rice. Image via Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Like the NFL's Pink October, No More is a "non-profit project" dedicated to selling merchandise to heighten awareness. Pat Shea, CEO of YWCA-Nashville, opted out of partnering with No More because awareness is "an important first step to bring about change, but it really is only the first step." One of the big questions for Goodell and the NFL has been what the next steps are. For those who, unlike Goodell, have been concerned with domestic violence for more than six months, the answer couldn't be clearer.

Shea works with Ford and many other Nashville leaders as part of a community-wide initiative called MEND, a program focusing on mentors of young men. As YWCA-Nashville's website describes:

"The words we say to each other—whether on the field or behind closed doors—create our culture. So the way we speak about women to one another sets the stage for how others act toward women. That's how violence against women starts: with men, just like us, just saying words. As men, we're responsible for this culture of violence. And as men, we have the power to end it."

This, Shea believes, is the key to ending domestic violence: a long-term strategic plan focused not on harsher punishments for those who abuse women, but on educating and openly discussing the issue with middle- and high school aged boys. MEND's focus is not on the perpetrators of violence, but on the good men who allow it to continue. "I'm always floored we have allowed men to not be in the conversation for this long," Shea tells me over the phone. "The good men got a free ticket for so long. If the good men step up, that will change the culture."

Such grassroots measures—teams talking to coaches, coaches talking to youth athletes—extend far beyond the NFL's official efforts thus far. Jackson Katz, founder and director of MVP Strategies, has been speaking to professional and collegiate sports teams about the issue since the early 1990s when he co-founded Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. He also founded the bystander approach, which seeks to "change social norms in peer cultures at all levels." Like Shea, he says the problem is not what should be done, but how to get professional sports teams to buy in.

In his August 28 letter to NFL owners, Goodell listed new measures in response to the Ray Rice scandal. One focuses on expanding the training offered at the Rookie Symposium, which Katz has previously conducted. The problem with such training, Katz says, is that the time allotted is not nearly enough to sufficiently cover the issue. "No serious educator would say [90 minutes] is adequate." Moreover, such lectures treat the issue "like an inoculation." Anyone who attended a middle school DARE presentation knows such assemblies don't accomplish much. "Those of us in the field know you have to spend more time," Katz says, but teams often reply that their schedules are too busy.

Although Goodell's letter did mention a MEND-like effort, it failed to provide any specifics. "We will expand the educational components in our college, high school and youth football programs that address domestic violence and sexual assault," he wrote. "We will seek to create and promote programs that develop the character of the young men who play, coach or manage our game, emphasizing respect for women and appropriate ways to resolve conflicts."

According to an NFL spokeswoman, "The NFL is expanding its awareness and educational initiatives—including developing age-appropriate character development, healthy relationship education as well as dating/domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault programming to those who play, coach, or manage football in college, high school, and youth programs." When asked for specifics, the league spokeswoman cited a summit at the Pop Warner Super Bowl for 50 high school football coaches from around the country, but didn't provide further details, including what organizations the NFL is partnering with, how much money is being given to those organizations or spent by the NFL to develop these programs, or whether any advisors are working with the NFL on these specific initiatives. The NFL did not immediately respond to a request for further information.

Shea was adamant that the NFL can and should play a major role in these types of initiatives. Domestic abuse is a culture problem, she says, and the best way to reverse cultural norms is when influencers speak out against it. "I don't know there's any other organization that could change the culture of violence as much as the NFL could."

What isn't nearly as important, according to Shea, is what she called "reprimanding bad men," a reference to the NFL's new (and old) personal conduct policy and Goodell's focus on punishing players for all types of off-field behavior. "Reprimanding bad men is just the tip of the iceberg," Shea emphasized. "The punishment is symbolic. They need to roll their sleeves up."

What can the NFL do specifically? Shea and Katz were not short on suggestions. They can launch public awareness campaigns—beyond the occasional TV commercial—featuring prominent male role models. They can help organizations similar to YWCA-Nashville finalize curricula for coaches, enabling a way to get key information to them on a consistent basis. They could fund and organize training programs. Katz recommended NFL teams host a full-day training session at their stadium every year for local high school coaches on their role in preventing abuse.

For all its power, money, and influence, the NFL's potential impact on curtailing domestic violence is not through anything the front office does, but rather through initiatives it backs. Few people care what Roger Goodell says, but most young boys have a Dana Ford, a role model they will respect. Those are the men who need to speak up.

Ultimately, any possible solution begins with the NFL recognizing that, if it truly wants to be a leader in the "domestic violence space," then they have to acknowledge it may not be able to double as a branding opportunity. Shea's advice to Goodell is straightforward: make a 10-year commitment to programs geared towards behaviors of young men and boys, and don't treat violence against women like a public relations problem, but recognize it as a societal epidemic.

"My message to the NFL isn't about what you're doing wrong," she says, "but look what you could do."