NFL Domestic Violence Shines a Light on a National Problem

NFL Domestic Violence Shines a Light on a National Problem

by Brette Sember, Esq., September 2014

Recently the NFL has come under fire for its handling of players facing domestic violence charges. As more and more players have been arrested for or charged with domestic violence, there is growing concern about the way the league handles these charges, as well as how abusers are treated under the law. Ray Rice, Ray McDonald, Jonathan Dwyer, and Greg Hardy are just the most recent players to face charges in this media firestorm.

Understanding Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is about more than just hitting someone. Domestic violence is about controlling another person using physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological abuse. It includes threats and stalking. It is a complex web of behaviors designed to control a member of the household and can include spouses, domestic partners, children, parents, and other family and household members. It is very difficult for a victim to leave, as he or she is often isolated and made powerless with a complex web of violence.

A Growing Problem

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that domestic violence statistics show that 10 million Americans are victims of domestic abuse each year. 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men have experienced violence from a domestic partner. 20,000 phone calls per day are made to domestic violence hotlines. 72% of murder-suicides involve a domestic partner. Growing domestic violence awareness has helped more people understand that this crime is a way to isolate a person and control him or her, often involving gradually escalating violence.

NFL vs. Laws

What has become muddied in the coverage of the domestic abuse NFL cases is that the league’s reaction to the cases is completely separate from the action taken by the states where the alleged crimes were committed. In every state’s criminal system, an accused is innocent until proven guilty. Once a verdict is reached, then a standardized sentence is meted out by the court. The NFL is not a court and has authority over its players only as agreed to in the contracts with the players. These contracts generally have a morals clause, which permits the league to suspend, bench or release players on behavior perceived by the league. A player need not be convicted to be suspended or released and there is no innocent until proven guilty provision.

Because the NFL changed direction so many times on its handling of the Rice case, there has been a huge backlash about the league’s uneven reaction to domestic violence cases, which have emerged as a growing problem among players. The NFL has hired four women advisors to shape the league’s policy on domestic violence moving forward and is making efforts to show how seriously it takes these charges. Players charged with these crimes are seeing a swifter and more serious response from the league involving suspensions and releases.

How Domestic Violence Is Treated

Most domestic abuse incidents fall under state domestic violence laws and the charges and sentences vary from state to state. Common sentences include probation, violence counseling, protective orders, jail time, seizure of weapons, and entrance into a state domestic abuse registry. This long list makes it sound like the punishment is severe, but the domestic violence NFL cases show that often abusers receive a slap on the wrist.

Ray Rice was charged with aggravated assault in New Jersey but was granted a 12 month pretrial intervention, so that if he remains clean, his record will be cleared. Partially spurred on by this case, New Jersey legislators passed new domestic abuse laws creating a state task force, requiring domestic abuse defendants to undergo counseling, allowing victims to testify by closed circuit TV, requiring police to search the state domestic abuse restraining order registry when making an arrest, allowing victims to obtain restraining orders even when there is no domestic relationship, and admitting restraining orders into evidence when a victim is charged with attacking his or her abuser.

Carolina Panthers player Greg Hardy was convicted in North Carolina of assault on a female and communicating threats and was sentenced to 18 months probation and a 30-day suspended sentence. San Francisco 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald was charged in California with felony domestic violence and will likely receive a suspended sentence or probation. Cardinals player Jonathan Dwyer was charged with assault, including aggravated assault and preventing someone from calling 911 in Arizona. He will likely receive a suspended sentence or probation. Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington pled guilty in March to assault and was sentenced to supervised probation for a year.

Adrian Peterson was charged with reckless or negligent injury to a child in Texas and is awaiting trial. Depending on the exact charge (which has not been released) he could face 180 days to 10 years in jail. He could also face civil child abuse charges and could lose custody or visitation with his child.

The NFL cases have highlighted the seriousness of domestic violence cases and the uneven response they receive in state courts.