The NFL actually got something right … maybe.
ESPN reports that on Thursday, National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to the league’s owners informing them of changes in the league’s personal conduct policy, specifically on the issue of domestic violence. According to the new rules, first-time offenders will receive a six-game suspension, while a second infraction will result in a lifetime ban that can be appealed after one year.
I’ll say this: It’s a start.
A few important things to note: The new rules fall under the league’s personal conduct policy, not the collective bargaining agreement. What that means is that all NFL personnel -- players, coaches, owners, etc. -- are subject to punishment. This is an especially important point given the league’s uneven handling of Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, who has yet to be disciplined for his DUI arrest and drug possession, while players such as Josh Gordon have felt the swift arm of the NFL.
What that also means, unfortunately, is that the players can and will fight tooth-and-nail to avoid being punished under these rules. In a statement following the league’s announcement, the players' union assured us, “if we believe that players’ due process rights are infringed upon during the course of discipline, we will assert and defend our members’ rights.” Because the personal conduct policy is overseen by Goodell and not collectively bargained, the union could use an antitrust defense in arguing on a player’s behalf.
Furthermore, it’s difficult to say just how effective this discipline will be in combatting domestic violence. The league has stipulated that the punishment will hinge on convictions and plea agreements, which can have the unfortunate consequence of not necessarily deterring attackers, but deterring victims from reporting them.
As Jessica Luther notes, the vast majority of Goodell’s letter doesn’t actually deal with the punishment. Rather, the commissioner details five specific preventative steps the league will take to fight domestic violence before it happens. These include: educational programs on domestic violence and sexual assault for all NFL personnel; staff training to help identify risk factors and at-risk individuals; confidential counseling services for employees and their families, “whether victim or potential aggressor”; community outreach to youth, high school and college football programs; and public service campaigns with outside partners to broaden the league’s outreach beyond the NFL.
This is really the heart of the new policy, and it represents a complete about-face in how the league views its role in this issue, and in society in general. This is important not just because it shows that an organization run by men is willing to listen to women and their allies on how best to serve their interests -- are you paying attention, Congress? -- but also because, unfortunately, the NFL appears to be more capable in protecting spouses than the criminal justice system.
This came about purely because of the sustained backlash against the league’s paltry two-game suspension of Ray Rice, and despite numerous attempts to defend itself while hiding behind the lack of a comprehensive domestic violence policy. As Luther notes, this also means that the NFL must have talked and actually listened to advocacy groups that tout prevention over punishment. This happened because feminists, and especially feminist sportswriters including Luther and Jane McManus (who brilliantly outlined how the commish could get domestic violence written into the league’s disciplinary measures) simply wouldn’t go away.
In that respect, this is a win, but it doesn’t end here. It’s the sports media's job to make sure the league follows through on its promises, and there are still questions as to how the policy will be implemented. After all, despite the complete turnaround, it’s hard not to see this as a public-relations move, damage control for the Almighty Shield. Instead of patting Goodell on the back for his far-too-late admission that he “got it wrong,” we need to stay on his case to make sure he actually gets it right.
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