The NFL Domestic Violence Policy: The Terror of Entitlement

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The Ray Rice video and the Adrian Peterson photos temporarily transformed the NFL limelight into a disinfecting sunlight. Everyone saw the visceral evidence of masculine terror run amok. After decades of page-two stories about players and run-ins with the law the visuals were frightening enough to stir a national conversation. The NFL responded with a cynical PR campaign (No More), proliferous apologies, and deep looks of concern. The Shield was protected through sheer audacity and the spectacle of a riveting Super Bowl.

“Nothing is wrong.”

The problem is that, just like a maniacal drunk or a seething stalker, the problem of domestic violence won’t go away for Roger Goodell and his private club of owners. On Wednesday night John Bowlen, son of Denver Broncos’ owner Pat Bowlen, was arrested on domestic violence charges. Bowlen allegedly pushed his girlfriend into a bathroom wall as she was calling 911. According to an arrest warrant she dropped the phone. Bowlen picked it up and said, “”This is the owner of the Denver Broncos. I am sorry. Nothing is wrong.”

In impaired speech Bowlen desperately tried to pull the status card to avoid involvement with authorities:

“This is the owner of the Denver Broncos. I am sorry, OK? I have a crazy girlfriend that is leaving my house right now. Nothing is wrong at all. You can call the sergeant of police Mickey Morton. You can call (longtime Bowlen security representative) Dave Abrams. You can call anyone you want. Please do not do anything right now. Nothing is wrong. I swear on my life. OK?”

Dave Abrams is a retired police officer who served 37 years with the Denver Police Department.

Bowlen sounded like a man used to the comforts of an alternate universe. And why not? Unlike normal people NFL players and owners have options when they get into trouble; and the NFL domestic violence policy doesn’t address the issue at the point of attack. Men who play football and NFL owners’ sons live in world where they are not accountable to the same laws as the rest of us. College players are given long leashes by local or university police. Billionaire offspring reap the benefits of uber cash and legal largesse. The Washington Post described the ethereal buffer zone that exists between NFL personnel and the courtroom.

… behind the scenes is an intricate and largely secretive three-layered security force — mainly comprised of former federal agents…Its emphases are swiftness and thoroughness, its tentacles reaching into states even without an NFL team, its code mostly one of silence.

Sometimes a Ray Rice, an Adrian Peterson, or a John Bowlen slips through the cracks. That’s when the emperor wears no clothes, the lawyers sharpen their pencils, and the PR machines begin to whir. Sometimes the entire meatpacking process is exposed like a chapter out of The Jungle.

“Is there too close a relatonship?”

Law enforcement works the front lines of domestic abuse. Domestic violence calls are some of the most dangerous situations police officers face on a daily basis. In such volatile circumstances there is no alternative to forceful intervention. But when NFL executives or players are involved in domestic incidents who are the first responders? Last November The New York Times published an article titled “Whisked Out of Jail, and Back to the N.F.L.: N.F.L. Teams’ Ties to Police Put Victims of Domestic Violence in a Bind.” Writer Steve Eder describes this dangerous combination of violence and entitlement:

Teams routinely employ off-duty officers to be uniformed escorts or to help with security, paying them, providing perks and covering costs for them to travel to away games. When allegations of crimes such as domestic violence arise, the bond between officers and team security officials can favor the player while leaving the accuser feeling isolated.

Last August former 49er and former Bear Ray McDonald was arrested on domestic violence charges. He allegedly left bruises on his girlfriend’s neck and arms. She was ten weeks pregnant. The first person McDonald called was an off duty San Jose police officer who was moonlighting as a member of the 49er security detail.

“This sounds too much like the SJPD was acting like the department was part of the team,” said Peter Keane, a Golden Gate University School of Law professor and a former San Francisco police commissioner. “…You shouldn’t have officers acting as liaisons with outside companies. This situation sounds like they created their own football bureau. You have Juvenile, Homicide and Football. Maybe it should be its own office.”

The involvement of San Jose police complicated McDonald’s case and it took a month to forward it to the Santa Clara District Attorney.

“Honestly, and bluntly, I think arrangements like this are major issues, and they don’t get enough attention. Sports teams are big business, and they can play hardball when it needs to with fans and communities,” said Eugene O’Donnell, professor of law and policy studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “It’s important to have enough separation so that the NFL people and normal people are treated the exact same way. Is there too close a relationship?”

From forceful intervention to long-term solutions.

Last month McDonald was arrested again for attacking his girlfriend again. He allegedly broke down a bedroom door and attacked her while she held their baby. Recently she released harrowing details involving McDonald.  She alleges an incident in which he “choked me, dragged and tried to remove me from the house and put his knee in my stomach when I was 10 weeks pregnant.” Ray McDonald was subsequently cut from the Chicago Bears and no longer enjoys the safety net of NFL security.

In May of 2014 Jack Elway, son of Broncos executive vice president of operations and general manager John Elway, was arrested on charges of assaulting his girlfriend. Rick Tosches of The Denver Post detailed the incident:

According to the warrant, his girlfriend of a year told police she was assaulted by him May 31 on Colfax Avenue at 1:40 a.m. She said they’d argued, and he responded by stopping the car, walking around to her side, grabbing her by the hair as all real men do and yanking her out of the vehicle. Some of her hair was ripped out.

When she tried to get back into the car, she told police, Elway shoved her to the sidewalk. Both of her knees were scraped on the concrete.

Then young Elway ran away. He left the car, with his driver’s license inside, at the scene and made his way back to his father’s house where he was arrested at 4 a.m.

Elway pled guilty to disturbing the peace and prosecutors dropped an assault charge the day before his trial would begin. Somehow his court appearance was not posted on the court docket.

The NFL’s public struggle with domestic violence has raised awareness. That’s great; but there needs to be a serious discussion about solutions to the problem. Clearly the NFL has an exceptional record of failure in reducing domestic abuse among its employees and employers. That doesn’t mean there can’t be larger lessons for the general public.

The NFL needs to be held accountable to the same laws and standards that apply to everyone else. Entitlement and violence is an extremely dangerous combination to the unprivileged majority. Studies have shown that 40% of law enforcement families deal with some type of domestic violence. It is too much to ask first responders to play the roles of cop, judge, and social worker. The cops and the courts require the knowledge and assistance of social services. The New Republic published and excellent article listing five ways domestic violence can be alleviated:

  1. Keep trying prevention programs.
  2. Make penalties for domestic violence consistent and firm.
  3. Increase funding for support services
  4. Change the way family courts handle domestic violence.
  5. Help women to be economically independent.

The NFL should be consulting professionals outside of legal and PR circles. The NFL domestic violence policy is not protecting victims. Handing out Band-Aids and issuing profuse apologies to the media are hardly solutions. The NFL represents the apex of sports success in the world; and that success has blinded them to their terror of entitlement.

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