While Ray Rice may have shattered the glass ceiling of domestic violence issues in the NFL, he is far from the first case of domestic violence in the NFL and he certainly hasn’t been the last. Friday’s suspension of Ezekiel Elliott has shown that the league still doesn’t know how to handle these situations.
Rice was initially suspended just two games by the NFL before footage of his punching his then girlfriend at an Atlantic City casino was released. The jarring video, which many assume the NFL had seen beforehand, made the league look terrible for giving such a lenient punishment to Rice. Ultimately, the Ravens terminated their contract with him and he would never sign again with another team. The league spent the 2014 season launching their “No More” campaign in response, but the league itself hasn’t lived up to that stringent take, issuing varying degrees of punishment for each domestic violence case since.
In December 2014, 49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald stood accused of sexual assault stemming from a party at his house. San Francisco released him that same day. He would sign with the Bears in March 2015 before being released two months later following another arrest for domestic violence (and child endangerment). McDonald would never sign with another team and the league never issued a formal punishment. The December arrest wasn’t event McDonald’s first domestic violence arrest of 2014.
McDonald’s teammate, Ahmad Brooks, would be arrested for sexual battery in August 2015, which also stemmed from McDonald’s party. Brooks would not be released by the 49ers, nor has the league suspended him. His case is still “pending.”
Meanwhile, another 49er, Tramaine Brock, was arrested last April for felony domestic violence. He would be released by the 49ers has remained unsigned since. His charges were dropped last week due to lack of evidence.
In 2015, the Dallas Cowboys made headlines for signing defensive end Greg Hardy. Hardy, who was an All-Pro in 2013, missed all but one game in 2014 when he was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list during the ongoing investigation into his domestic violence dispute. Essentially, he was suspended with pay. That summer, Hardy was found guilty of assaulting a female and communicating threats and sentenced him to 18 months of probation, suspending a 60-day jail sentence. Hardy would appeal the decision, requesting a jury trial and when the victim failed to appear in court, the charges were dropped. Hardy was initially suspended 10 games by the league before having it ultimately reduced to four. The Cowboys suffered a backlash for signing Hardy, who only played one season in Dallas after his productivity took a steep decline and he became a locker room cancer, often showing up late and negatively influencing teammates.
Last season, New York Giants kicker Josh Brown was suspended only one game for violating the league’s personal conduct policy stemming from a domestic violence charge in 2015. It would later emerge that Brown admitted to verbally and physically abusing his wife and it was revealed that he had done so on more than 20 occasions. When the NFL claimed that the King County Sheriff’s Office refused to divulge information, the sheriff’s office responded swiftly, stating that the NFL investigators not only failed to identify that they worked for the NFL, but also failed to follow proper protocol when it came to requesting the documents, calling the NFL a “bully.”
On Friday, Elliott was suspended six games by the league, a year after he was accused of assault his then-girlfriend in Columbus, Ohio. He was not charged due to “conflicting and inconsistent information,” due largely to a sworn affidavit signed by the friend of the accuser, Tiffany Thompson, claiming that Thompson lied and even screamed that she would “ruin his career.” Elliott plans to appeal. Since the initial incident, he has not stayed out of trouble. During a St. Patrick’s Day Parade, he pulled down a woman’s shirt, exposing her breast and was accused of getting into an altercation with a DJ last month, resulting int he DJ being hospitalized with a broken nose. The league can still punish Elliott for both incidents and he plans to appeal his current suspension.
All of these situations have varying results for the same root cause – domestic violence – and when you vary the results, it becomes harder to enforce, especially if the charges are dropped. Because of this, the NFL needs to create a uniform policy when it comes to domestic violence cases. It’s hard to place the right punishment on a player, but six games is definitely significantly better than the two games Rice received or the laughable one game ban for Brown. Six games takes away more than one-third of the season for a player. But the suspension without pay isn’t enough because rehabilitation needs to occur as well. The league should also dictate that these suspended players receive counseling as well or even escalate the punishment.
While some players, like Brandon Marshall and Ray Rice, received their wake up call and worked above and beyond to advocate against domestic violence or mental health issues stemming from it, there are others like McDonald and Hardy who need help but either don’t realize it or refuse to seek it. If the NFL takes the option (and paycheck) of playing professional football away from them until they seek they help they need, it may increase the chances of them agreeing to get help.
If the NFL still doesn’t have the information they need, they can also utilize the commissioner’s exempt list while they further investigate. A player doesn’t need to be convicted to trigger a suspension, there just needs to be enough evidence of him violating the league’s personal conduct policy. Additionally, and this may be more of an issue for the next collective bargaining agreement negotiations, teams could enforce a morals clause that cancels out any remaining guaranteed money to a player if he is suspended for an incident stemming from domestic violence. Though, this would be a hard sell to the NFL Player’s Association, especially since the NFL is the only major professional U.S. sport that does not fully guarantee contracts.
As football fans, we need to collectively look beyond their heroics on the field, because at the end of the day, this is a much more important issue, and one the NFL is fumbling.