How The NFL's New Domestic Violence Stance Came To Be

AP Photo/David Goldman

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's surprising letter to owners last week came after a series of phone calls and meetings with domestic violence experts.

Kim Gandy was sitting in her Washington, D.C., office a few days after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced a two-game suspension for Ray Rice. Like a lot of people in her line of work, the president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence had been very critical of the NFL's entire response to Rice's arrest for aggravated assault after he allegedly knocked out his then-girlfriend/now-wife in an elevator.

The phone rang.

"Is this Kim Gandy?"

"Yes."

"This is Roger Goodell."

Gandy was stunned. The two went on to have an hourlong conversation. Goodell asked a lot of questions. What is domestic violence? How can you tell who is likely to abuse their partner? What would a good workplace policy for all NFL employees look like?

Gandy said Goodell was surprised at the storm of criticism after the Rice suspension and fine and told her: "Here's what I don't understand -- we actually did something. Half a million is a lot of money. Why aren't people mad at the judge and prosecutor who did nothing at all?"

"Victims and survivors and advocates aren't looking at the money,'" she told Goodell. "The judge and prosecutor don't have fans to be mad at them, not in the way fans have expectations of you."

These conversations were the beginning of a bold new policy on domestic violence and sexual assault that the NFL unveiled last Thursday in a letter to team owners. Goodell surveyed experts in the field -- Gandy is a former prosecutor in New Orleans -- and built a framework that included a six-game suspension for first offenses and a lifetime ban with the second, though players have the opportunity to apply for reinstatement after a year.

The NFL also instituted a workplace policy for all the men and women it employs -- not just players -- and is working to create an outreach element with the ultimate aim of changing the conversation about the issue.

"He did a lot of listening and, I think, was genuinely trying to understand," Gandy said. "I know he was talking to a lot of other people, maybe to see if we would all say the same thing."

On Aug. 21, the NFL held a meeting at its Park Avenue offices. The league brought in Gandy and a handful of other experts and activists to help hone the policy it outlined. Among those invited: Esta Soler from Futures without Violence, Tony Porter from a Call to Men, Joe Ehrmann from Coach for America and activist Rita Smith. They met with Goodell, executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent and other NFL higher-ups. The meeting was slated for two hours but went longer, and Goodell stayed until the last conversation wrapped up.

"The policy wasn't where we wanted, and that's my responsibility," Goodell told reporters on Wednesday at a flag football event. "I think it is important for the ownership to understand that and how serious we're taking this issue and the importance of the work that needs to be done. It's not just about discipline. We're going to step up every aspect of our program with education and training. We've been working an awful lot over the years with experts in this field, and we think we really can make a difference here. I wanted them to hear that directly from me."

Across the board, people who work around the issue of domestic violence were pleased with the change in tone.

"I get a sense from him that there's no pulling back," said Porter, co-founder of A Call to Men. "He's in this for the long haul."

Porter has worked with the NFL for a decade, speaking about issues related to violence and the way men and women interact. He said he gets the sense that the NFL will put money behind the parts of the program that include outreach to colleges and high schools to speak about sexual violence and control issues.

Think of all the players who have camps each year, Porter said, and the value of those players taking the message forward. "They have hundreds of boys hanging on their every word," he said.

Adds Soler, the president of Futures Without Violence: "Their opportunity to actually change the norm is so great. "The outline is powerful, but now the work needs to happen."

Porter also understands how the NFL got it wrong in the first place.

"I think the NFL for the most part is like any other organizational structure," Porter said. "If you look at the domestic violence response around our nation, it's not a good response."

Gandy said that part of the issue for the NFL is that different parts of the country may have very different legal processes. She pointed to this story about an Arkansas woman who was murdered. Before her death, Laura Aceves pleaded with law enforcement to do something about her alleged abuser, who had been repeatedly arrested and released.

The NFL has had its own tragic cases. Former Chiefs player Jovan Belcher murdered Kasandra Perkins before taking his own life in 2013. Panthers receiver Rae Carruth was found guilty in 2001 of conspiring to kill Cherica Adams, who was carrying his child.

The NFL will investigate each alleged case of domestic violence independently -- a process happening right now after 49ers defensive tackle Ray McDonald was arrested over Labor Day weekend. The league said it will wait to see if someone is charged before issuing any decision.

"Yes, I think that was very clear in the policy -- not only charged, but we would wait for the legal system to complete its process, particularly in any case on a first case," Goodell said Wednesday. "That is something that is very important to us."

The NFL reserves the ability, through the Personal Conduct Policy, to discipline a player even if he isn't found guilty in a court of law.

In domestic violence cases, women sometimes refuse to press charges or testify against their abuser. Yet that doesn't mean that the incident didn't take place. Janay Palmer married Ray Rice the day after his indictment in the assault case. In looking into these cases, the NFL may have to make some difficult judgment calls.

In the letter to owners, Goodell said the NFL expects it has higher standards:

"Much of the criticism stemmed from a fundamental recognition that the NFL is a leader, that we do stand for important values, and that we can project those values in ways that have a positive impact beyond professional football. We embrace this role and the responsibility that comes with it."

Yes, it may be tricky, but the NFL isn't going to back away from the issue anymore. Goodell won't make the mistake of interviewing an alleged victim in the room with the alleged assailant and his coach and general manager again, as happened in the Rice case. News conferences featuring couples in crisis? Unlikely after Goodell's listening tour on the issue.

For Porter, seeing the discussions and meeting come to fruition in such a comprehensive way was deeply gratifying.

"When I saw that policy, I was astounded," Porter said. "I didn't expect the response to be that big. Having done this work for 20 years, it was like my partner said -- the needle moved."

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