NFL Should Take Lead In Rehabilitating Domestic Violence Offenders

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

For several years, Brandon Marshall was part of the NFL's problem, his run-ins with the law including several domestic violence incidents. Now he's one of the league's biggest mental heath advocates.

On Friday afternoon, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell tried -- and failed -- to defend the league's initial mishandling of the Ray Rice incident, its lack of transparency in the ensuing months and its ongoing inconsistency in penalizing players for various transgressions. The string of failures since February has resulted in the biggest crisis in NFL history.

The focus has been squarely on Goodell for weeks now. Ever since Rice's release from the Ravens and indefinite suspension by the league on Sept. 8, the story has been less about the troubled running back and more about institutional failure, within the team and the NFL overall. But while most are focusing on Goodell's job security and the future of the league, one must also wonder what's next for Rice.

Last Tuesday, the NFL Players Association filed an appeal on Rice's behalf, contending that the indefinite suspension, following his original two-game suspension, means he is being punished twice for the same offense, a violation of the collective bargaining agreement. Rice was cut by Baltimore, so even if he wins his appeal, he's not guaranteed a return to the league. In fact, it's hard to imagine that any team would be willing to take on the public relations disaster that would accompany signing him this season.

But what about next year? Or even 2016? At 27, the three-time Pro Bowler certainly has a few good years left in his legs. Does he deserve another chance to play in the NFL? Would the league send a more powerful message by banning him for life or by welcoming him back?

Leigh Goodmark, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, where she teaches a course called the Gender Violence Clinic, believes in the power of second chances.

"If Rice does the really hard work that's necessary to show that he understands why his behavior is wrong and he shows a real willingness to change, evidence of change and an engagement in the process, then why should we take away his livelihood for the rest of his life?" Goodmark said. "Depriving his wife and his child and him of his livelihood for the rest of his life seems a pretty severe penalty without giving any opportunity for redemption. It's a 'Hate the sin, at least have hope for the sinner' thing."

Goodmark strongly disagrees with the zero-tolerance "one-and-done" policy that a group of female senators has urged the NFL to adopt in cases of domestic violence.

"I think what that does is to create a complete disincentive for any player's wife or girlfriend who has been abused to come forward," she said. "Particularly if she's interested in continuing the relationship but trying to get help to stop the abuse. ... As a practical matter, it cuts off avenues for help for people who are willing to deal with their issues, and for the wives and girlfriends of players who might find that it's actually much more dangerous for them if they cut their partners off from any livelihood or opportunity to continue in the NFL.

"You have to see if at least there's a possibility for change," Goodmark said. "And people will disappoint you and then everyone will point fingers and say, 'See, you never should've given him a second chance,' but maybe some people won't [disappoint you]. Maybe they'll change and they'll become part of the community of accountability that spreads the message within the NFL that says this is not how we do business here."

"Maybe," Goodmark said, "they'll be like Brandon Marshall."

What's needed is a bigger emphasis on redemption, which is a bigger emphasis on teaching skills. If you teach skills to a person who wants to change, you can definitely help them.
Marsha Linehan, psychologist

For several years, the Bears receiver was part of the NFL's problem. His history of off-the-field troubles date to college. It includes several domestic violence incidents, as well as a DUI arrest, a team-imposed suspension for acting out at Dolphins practice and a much-publicized incident with his now-wife.

Marshall, 30, is now an advocate for mental health awareness. He turned his life around after being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in 2010, and he is proof of the worth of second chances. He's earned three consecutive Pro Bowl nods since joining the Bears post-diagnosis, and he has created awareness and fundraising via the Brandon Marshall Foundation.

Thursday afternoon, Marshall held a news conference addressing his past issues, after attorney Gloria Allred on Wednesday said that Goodell ignored previous complaints lodged against Marshall.

"My view on the NFL and this current climate that we're in, I think it's a shame," Marshall said. "But I do love and respect what we're doing because the NFL, we all know, has the ability to transform lives, to transform communities. We have influence to really shape and mold a culture."

Is it the NFL's responsibility to rehabilitate players who lose their way, or do men like Rice give away their right to play in the league when they commit such abhorrent actions?

Marsha Linehan, a renowned psychologist, author and founder of the Linehan Institute, which advances behavioral technologies in the treatment of those with complex and severe mental disorders, argues that the emphasis shouldn't be on making the NFL look better, but rather on making its players better.

"We have treatments that are effective," Linehan said. "So many people learn to regulate and control their behavior. And that has to be the target. We have to target change, not target judgmentalness, punishment or anything else. Because the only reason for punishment is to get the behavior to change."

Linehan created Dialectical Behavior Therapy, which McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, regards as one of the most successful and effective treatments for patients with borderline personality disorder. The therapy combines elements of mindfulness, interpersonal skills, emotional-regulation skills and distress-tolerance skills. Marshall has discussed his work with Linehan and how DBT has aided his recovery.

"You have to bring together acceptance and change," Linehan said. "You have to accept the person for how they are and you have to get them to change anyway. The second part of it is skills training, increasing the person's skillful behavior. It assumes that people are always doing the best they can, that people are incapable of being better than they are because they don't have the skills they need to regulate their own behavior."

Said Linehan: "What's needed is a bigger emphasis on redemption, which is a bigger emphasis on teaching skills. If you teach skills to a person who wants to change, you can definitely help them."

Goodmark and Linehan said the best way for the NFL to tackle its domestic violence problem is from the inside out, using the power of its own community.

The research shows that male peer-to-peer intervention is more effective than almost anything else in getting people to change their abusive behavior. So imagine if you could cultivate within a team of group of guys whose mission it was to ensure that they weren't going to have these kinds of problems on their team.
Leigh Goodmark, professor

"You can look at the NFL as a community and say, 'How do you hold this guy accountable?'" Goodmark said. "So he's been found to have committed a domestic violence offense and he's been suspended for his games, but then what? Do the players on his team say to him, 'We're going to hold you accountable by being here for you if you need to talk, if you need a timeout, if you need to walk away. We're going to put you up for a few weeks while you go through your batterer's intervention counseling and stay away from your wife until things calm down a bit. And we're going to be there for her, and if she calls us and says there's a problem, you're not going to have a problem just with her, you're going to have a problem with us.'"

"The research shows that male peer-to-peer intervention is more effective than almost anything else in getting people to change their abusive behavior," Goodmark said. "So imagine if you could cultivate within a team of group of guys whose mission it was to ensure that they weren't going to have these kinds of problems on their team."

Goodmark believes every rookie needs to go through a required domestic violence training program before entering the league and be assigned a mentor or group that he can approach if he's worried he might have a problem. She applauds the NFL for adding a panel of domestic violence experts, but says the league failed to address the need for diversity with its current appointments.

"I find the panel to be a wonderful idea and yet incredibly problematic in that it's all white women," Goodmark said. "That was really tone-deaf by the NFL. I can imagine a panel that involved domestic violence experts, people of color, players and league officials. They would hear these claims, hear from both the player and his partner and any other supportive people in their lives. They would say, 'This is what the experience was, this is what I want, this is what I need to be safe and this is what we can offer as a community.'

"I realize not everybody believes in that kind of restorative approach, but in the long term, it's about change. If you don't do anything to change him, he just goes on to abuse his next partner."

Linehan has her own advice for the league.

"They should provide opportunities for treatment. They should give [those involved in domestic violence] skills training from sophisticated people who could work with them and give them opportunities for private help. You want to look good? Put a lot of money into research on violence, research on out-of-control behaviors and difficult-to-change behaviors. Become known as the people who are funding this.

"They could become a real force for change. I would tell them to do it if they want to save their name, they could do it for that reason. And if they want to save people, they could do it for that reason."

Both women agree that the key is to get offenders the appropriate treatment. And both agree that assuming there's no room for change is a simplistic way of approaching the problem. While Rice's and Marshall's issues differ, Goodmark says Rice's opportunity to experience a redemption like Marshall's will come down to the same thing: self-awareness.

"Being self-aware about his condition made a tremendous difference for Marshall," said Goodmark, who did not work with Marshall during his treatment but is familiar with his case. "The guys who go through batterer's counseling and change are the guys who are self-aware about their conditions and willing to change."

After his diagnosis, Marshall dove into treatment at McLean Hospital, studying the brain and his illness. In the NFL Network's "Brandon Marshall: A Football Life," which premiered Friday night, Marshall talked about his devotion to getting better.

"I have three months to do this before the season starts," he said of his time at McLean in 2011. "I'm going to spend every single day conquering this."

In 2012, he gave the keynote speech at the National Alliance on Mental Illness convention.

"Showing people out there that, basically, where they're at, where there is no light, and seeing me go from there, with no light, to the end of the tunnel, where there's freedom," Marshall said that day. "I want to use this platform to help others."

Linehan said Marshall is the perfect person to help get the NFL to approach domestic violence and behavioral issues with a desire for meaningful change.

"Brandon Marshall is not alone," Linehan said. "Athletes have gone through our treatment. Find a group of these people, because they're the ones who are going to get everybody else to go along."

As we look to the future of the NFL, what happens to men like Rice is just as important as what happens to Goodell. While the commissioner may save face by eliminating the problem from his league, he's merely sending the problem off into the world for others to deal with. It may be difficult to imagine seeing Rice in an NFL uniform again, but the same was true for Marshall during his lowest moments.

The NFL has always prided itself on being a family. Healing and restoring its sons is a better use of league power than simply kicking them out of the house. Offenders must be punished for their crimes, yes, but the crimes will continue if they aren't shown the way to change and given a reason to want to fight for that change.

Marshall came out of his personal darkness to shine both as a player and a leader. Rice doing the same would be the best possible outcome for him, for his wife and child, and for the league.

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