Out of Sight, Out of Mind: How the NFL Celebrates the 20th Anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act


Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ncai/

By Azadeh Erfani

It is an understatement to say that the National Football League (NFL) has had a shaky response to domestic violence allegations. Since Commissioner Roger Goodell began his tenure in 2006, fifty-six players have faced domestic violence related charges.[i] Goodell’s overall response was mild to say the least—with a total of thirteen game suspensions.[ii]


For these incidents of domestic violence, the NFL has faced different levels of scrutiny. This inconsistency is due in part to the fact that acts of violence are not recorded or circulated widely. That is until the viral Ray Rice video—security camera footage where the former Baltimore Ravens’ running back punches his then-fiancé, Janay Palmer, unconscious. Now, domestic violence has become a difficult but necessary issue for the NFL to confront.[iii]


You Have to See It to Believe It

Before the full release of the infamous video, the incident between Ray and Janay Rice was played down as a “minor physical altercation” or even an isolated “couples’ issue.” [iv] The full footage of the incident suggested otherwise. With the evidence in hand, New Jersey prosecutors presented the case to a grand jury, who then indicted Ray Rice for a felony aggravated assault, for purposely or knowingly causing or attempting to cause his fiancé significant bodily injury, or recklessly doing so “under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life.”[v]

Rice pleaded not guilty and applied for a diversion program, which the prosecution granted him in May 2014.[vi] The NFL handed Rice a two-game suspension. Instead of solidifying the NFL’s tough stance on domestic violence, the penalty made critics ask if the NFL grasped the gravity of Rice’s offense.

On September 8, 2014, the general public gained access to the full footage of the incident.[vii] The video was more than the uncontested facts of Rice’s indictment or internal investigations. The NFL drew the line, indefinitely suspending Rice.[viii] Rice has already spoken of trying to challenge the NFL’s suspension, and for the first time, Rice may be asking the same question as NFL critics: why did the league need to see it to believe it?[ix]


The NFL’s Response 

The NFL claims its initial two game suspension was based on a disciplinary hearing where Rice recounted the events.[x] At that hearing, Goodell interviewed the perpetrator and his victim, a move that raises a number of red flags when domestic violence is at issue.[xi] The NFL sparked even more criticism when it became clear that the NFL had access to the video long before its public release—raising questions of the NFL’s commitment to disciplining personal conduct.[xii]

Goodell began his term as NFL Commissioner with a vow to improve personal conduct.[xiii] As the controversy continues to make headlines, Goodell admitted that these disciplinary measures need substantial revision. After hiring a former FBI director to review the NFL’s investigation of Rice, Goodell announced a six-game suspension policy for first-time domestic violence offenders.[xiv]

Further, the league even began looking for more preventative strategies to address the rampant problem. The NFL hired three domestic violence experts to lead the league into a new era and directly engage players in domestic violence awareness.[xv] Despite these measures and considerations, many continue to call for Goodell’s resignation.[xvi]


Meanwhile, the Violence Against Women Act Turns 20

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was passed twenty years ago to respond to what Congress perceived to be an epidemic of domestic violence in the United States. VAWA allocated substantial resources to social services agencies, shelters, and law enforcement to keep survivors safe and prosecute perpetrators.

On VAWA’s twentieth anniversary, the Ray Rice case shows that the NFL should not be alone in facing scrutiny. Despite all the NFL criticism, the league ultimately imposed harsher penalties than Ray Rice faced in court. The pretrial intervention program offered to Rice in the assault case involving his wife was granted in less than one percent of all resolved domestic violence assault cases from 2010 to 2013.[xvii]

When facing prosecution, NFL athletes are seen more favorably by juries than the rest of defendants in domestic violence cases.[xviii] Although the judicial system may not provoke a systemic change of culture, effective convictions can act as a powerful deterrent in domestic abuse;[xix] a factor that influenced New Jersey lawmakers to pass six bills to increase protections for domestic abuse victims.[xx] Even though the bills were in preparation before the Ray Rice video went viral, this scandal likely acted as a catalyst for reform.

In 2013, VAWA was up for reauthorization and Congress members debated the bill to a deadlock.[xxi] On its face, members of Congress praised the mission of VAWA, but not everyone prioritized the bill’s urgency.[xxii] After all, the urgency to address domestic violence does not strike everyone like a punch in the face—except when it is caught on tape.

As the NFL faces backlash for its delayed reaction, advocates against, and survivors of, domestic violence survivors continue to struggle to bring attention to the issue of violence against women. Domestic violence is often dismissed as a personal issue that does not command public accountability. The necessity for the NFL to see acts of violence before levying the harshest punishment has created an interesting ripple to an already shaky spectacle.



[i] See Ron Kroichick, Domestic Violence Rocks NFL Image, threatens Brand, San Francisco Chronicle (Sept. 13, 2014, 10:31 PM), http://www.sfgate.com/sports/kroichick/article/Domestic-violence-rocks-NFL-image-threatens-brand-5753979.php#page-1 (citing recent report on number of domestic violence allegations).

[ii] See Dave Zirin, Why NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell Must Go and Who Should Replace Him, The Nation (Sept. 15, 2014, 10:48 AM), http://www.thenation.com/blog/181608/why-nfl-commissioner-roger-goodell-must-go-and-who-should-replace-him (explaining that fifty-six players arrested on domestic violence charges were “suspended for a combined thirteen games”).

[iii] See John Barr, Greg Amante, Sources: Ray Rice Spat at Fiancée, ESPN.com (Sept. 11, 2014, 9:04 AM), http://espn.go.com/espn/otl/story/_/id/11503496/ray-rice-spat-face-fiancee-twice-punch-lines-reports (reporting that security workers watching incident saw Rice administer “knockout punch” to his fiancée, before dragging her out of elevator).

[iv] See Louis Bien, A Complete Timeline of the Ray Rice Assault Case, SB Nation (Sept. 15, 2014, 2:47 AM), http://www.sbnation.com/nfl/2014/5/23/5744964/ray-rice-arrest-assault-statement-apology-ravens (quoting Rice’s attorney who characterized incident as “minor physical altercation” and Ravens owner John Harbaugh that Ray Rice and fiancée “obviously have a couple issues [sic]”).

[v] See Ray Rice Indictment, Baltimore Sun (Mar. 27, 2014) http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/crime/blog/bal-ray-rice-indictment-document-20140327,0,1116248.htmlpage (showing Rice’s indictment for one count of aggravated assault under N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:12-1b(7) (West 2012)).

[vi] See Bien, supra note 4 (reporting that on May 21, 2014, prosecutors allowed Rice to follow pre-trial intervention program).

[vii] See Ryan Van Bibber, Ray Rice Assault Video Makes NFL’s Punishment Look Even Weaker, SB Nation (Sept. 8, 2014, 8:32 AM), http://www.sbnation.com/nfl/2014/9/8/6120881/ray-rice-video-tmz-nfl-ravens (announcing TMZ release of security footage showing Rice punching fiancée). The video shows Ray Rice repeatedly spitting on his fiancé and provoking her, before punching her unconscious. See Barr, supra note 3 (sharing former casino security staffer watched video where Rice spat at fiancée twice, prompted her retaliation, before administering knockout punch).

[viii] See Bien, supra note 4 (noting both Ravens’ termination and NFL suspension immediately followed release of full video).

[ix] See Aaron Wilson, NFL Players Association, Ray Rice to Appeal Indefinite Suspension, Sources Say, Baltimore Sun (Sept. 14, 2014, 7:50 PM), http://www.baltimoresun.com/sports/ravens/ravens-insider/bal-sources-ray-rice-nflpa-contemplating-legal-grievance-options-20140914,0,905928.story (noting that suspension already cost Rice $3.529 million in salary).

[x] See Wilson, supra note 16 (reporting Goodell’s statement that video in September showed new information that did not come out of disciplinary hearing in June).

[xi] See Katie Sanders, Did NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell Interview Janay Rice with Her Husband, Ray Rice, Present?, PolitiFact.com (Sept. 14, 2014, 6:15 PM), http://espn.go.com/blog/nflnation/post/_/id/21598/nfl-personal-conduct-policy (explaining that domestic violence experts believe NFL should have never interviewed victim and suspect together).

[xii] See Report: Rice Video Was Sent to NFL, ESPN.com (Sept. 11, 2014, 1:53 PM), http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/id/11503851/ray-rice-videotape-sent-nfl-executive-april (reporting that NFL confirmed reception of video footage back on April 9, 2014).

[xiii] See Kroichick, supra note 1 (explaining that personal conduct was to become “defining issue” of Goodell’s tenure).

[xiv] See Ed Payne, Ex-FBI Director to Investigate Ray Rice Case, CNN (Sept. 16, 2014, 7:14 AM), http://www.cnn.com/2014/09/11/us/nfl-ray-rice/; see also Aaron Wilson, Roger Goodell Outlines Increased Discipline for Domestic Violence Incidents in Letter to Owners, Baltimore Sun (Aug. 28, 2014), http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2014-08-28/sports/bal-roger-goodell-outlines-increased-discipline-for-domestic-violence-incidents-in-letter-to-owners-20140828_1_roger-goodell-nfl-owners-domestic-violence-incidents (reporting that under new disciplinary policy first-time offenders would be suspended for six games, and second-time offenders would receive year-long suspension).

[xv] See Michael O’Keeffe, Corky Siemasko, NFL Hires 3 Domestic Violence Experts in Wake of Ray Rice, Other scandals, New York Daily News (Sept. 15, 2014, 3:07 PM), http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/football/nfl-hires-3-domestic-violence-experts-wake-abuse-scandals-article-1.1940304; see also Ron Kroichick, Domestic Violence Rocks NFL Image, threatens Brand, San Francisco Chronicle (Sept. 13, 2014, 10:31 PM), http://www.sfgate.com/sports/kroichick/article/Domestic-violence-rocks-NFL-image-threatens-brand-5753979.php#page-1 (reporting that NFL is considering proposals of having players visit domestic violence shelters and directly speak with survivors).

[xvi] See Zirin, supra note 2 (noting that Goodell has become public relations liability for NFL for poor handling of Rice case, therefore warranting resignation); see also #GoodellMustGo: Ultraviolet Flies Anti-Goodell Signs at NFL Games, NBC News (Sept. 14, 2014, 4:20 PM), (reporting that women’s rights group flew banners over two NFL games calling for Goodell’s resignation). But seeNicholas Gregory, Roger Goodell on the Chopping Block? Don’t Count on It, Moorad Sports Law Journal Blog (Sept. 9, 2014), http://lawweb2009.law.villanova.edu/sportslaw/?p=2681 (noting that NFL owners continue to support Goodell, making resignation unlikely).

[xvii] See John Barr & Don Van Natta Jr., Program Ray Rice in Is Rarely Granted, ESPN.com (Sept. 12, 2014, 9:42 PM), http://espn.go.com/espn/otl/story/_/id/11514871/judicial-figures-show-ray-rice-deal-offered-rarely (relaying New Jersey Judiciary data obtained Friday by “Outside the Lines”).

[xviii] See Bethany P. Withers, The Integrity of the Game: Professional Athletes and Domestic Violence, 1 Harv. J. Sports & Ent. L. 145, 149 (2010) (citation omitted) (noting “off-setting pro-athlete bias” of most juries).

[xix] See Michael Powell, What Were They Thinking? Ugly Video, Blind Justice, N.Y. Times (Sept. 13, 2014), http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/14/sports/football/what-were-they-thinking-ugly-video-blind-justice.html_r=1&gwh=8384B41CDB2AC2288C80D40A1F00ABBF&gwt=pay&assetType=nyt_now (quoting Manhattan district attorney that “Conviction seems to be one of the big deterrents” in domestic violence cases).

[xx] See N.J. Assembly Passes Domestic Violence Bills amid Ray Rice Scandal, NJ.com (Sept. 15, 2014, 4:34 PM), http://www.nj.com/politics/index.ssf/2014/09/nj_assembly_passes_domestic_violence_bills_amid_ray_rice_scandal.html (reporting that bills were written well before Rice scandal, but scandal brought added urgency).

[xxi] See Suzy Khimm, The Violence Against Women Act Is on Life Support, Wash. Post (Jan. 25, 2013), http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/01/25/the-violence-against-women-act-is-on-life-support/ (explaining that legislative gridlock in Congress due to contested support of domestic violence services for Native Americans and Immigrants).

[xxii] See Josh Lederman, Obama Signs Violence Against Women Act, Huffington Post (Mar. 7, 2013, 1:57 PM), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/07/obama-violence-against-women-act_n_2830158.html (quoting VAWA sponsor and writer Joe Biden that delay in re-authorization brings back urgency of domestic violence “like a bad nightmare”).