Return to Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault in Sports

“Real-life Approach” Needed for Dealing with Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in Sports Leagues and Beyond

domestic violence in the NFL

by Sheilla Dingus

December 12, 2016

In Part I of this series, I took a look at domestic violence in the sporting world extending into society, and in Part II took a dive into the complexities of dealing with sexual assault.  In viewing these problems, which not only affect the sports leagues, but our culture as a whole, the issues may appear so vast and complex as to present a “no win scenario.”

For the answer to this dilemma, perhaps we should borrow a play from Star Trek, the long-running sci-fi series. As the story goes, cadets were placed in a “no win scenario” simulation in which they were faced with making one of two choices, either of which led to disaster.  The simulation was designed to test the moral fortitude of the cadets regarding how they faced the situation; that is, until one cadet, a James T. Kirk found a way to win.  When his astounded professors asked how he did it, he replied, “I changed the scenario.”

I propose that a “change of scenario” is needed in dealing with the problems of domestic violence and sexual assault.  Part of that change is in education.  We need to continue to debunk the myths and break the stereotypes associated with these crimes as I described in the previous segments of this series.  And going beyond that, we need to discover productive and proactive solutions in order to move forward.  To this end, I spoke with a number of experts; people in the trenches like Assistant District Attorney Kaylin Render, who prosecutes crimes of this nature on a daily basis, veteran police officer Tom Patton, highly respected sports law and appellate attorney Daniel Wallach, and Dr. Mitch Abrams, the preeminent voice in the field of sports psychology.

As ADA Render emphasized, the needs of the victim need to be the “first priority” in cases of this nature.  Both Daniel Wallach and Dr. Abrams expressed that the sports leagues, and NFL, in particular have difficulty grappling with this issue in part because they attempt to lump everything into a “one-size-fits-all” approach.  The problem with that is there’s no standard victim and no standard offender.

According to Dr. Abrams, “Boys are being taught incorrectly what it means to be a man.” He points out that they’re conditioned to hide their feelings, and instead of being taught to be respectful of women, they’re led to believe women are there for the taking.    He stresses that we need do a better job of teaching our boys what is acceptable and what isn’t. When they reach puberty and young adulthood indoctrinated with misconceptions about what it means to be masculine, especially if there are other aggravating factors, problems develop.

Dr. Abrams, who is a sport, clinical and forensic psychologist, has overseen mental health in the New Jersey State Prison System for the last sixteen years and developed a private practice focused on controlling violence in athletics at all levels.

 In order to change the actions of an offender, the mindset must be changed.  “For domestic violence, I can tell you, you won’t get anywhere by wagging your finger at someone and telling them you’re a piece of crap,” he says, “You can’t do this. It’s not how it’s done. It’s not how you work with athletes. It’s not how you work with them on domestic violence.”

Among the sports leagues, the NFL in particular has had a problem addressing domestic abuse, and their measures for the most part have been reactive “finger wagging” rather than proactive solutions.  Sports law attorney Daniel Wallach says, “The NFL needs to move past the notion of retribution and punishment, that’s vital.”  He further explains, “Right now it’s a race to the bottom for the NFL to get the goods on a player to justify any suspension on him.”  This is because the NFL tends to approach this from a PR angle. “The NFL wants to be able to win the court of public opinion and mollify their wealthy corporate sponsors,” says Wallach.  They approach it as “Give us a lot of money and we root out all the bad people, we have a clean game; we have wholesome athletes.”

This “good guy bad guy” approach is far too simplistic to be realistic.  While Roger Goodell has implied that the issues are too complex for the public to understand, it seems abundantly clear that his PR approach has misfired; I’d go so far as to say it’s backfired.  Would it not be prudent for the league and its commissioner to take a couple of steps back and reevaluate?

Perhaps a better course of action would be for the NFL to get out of the business of law enforcement.  Daniel Wallach says, “I don’t know that the NFL should be in the business of interfering in private relationships.”  He calls it a “slippery slope,” when the league tries to address cases before they’ve even been adjudicated.  “No matter what the NFL does, it will inevitably arrive at the wrong decision because of a flaw in the process or inconsistency in its discipline.  In trying to get ahead of the curve, the NFL has exacerbated the problem.  How is the league to access believability and culpability?” Wallach asks, “It puts the league in a position of believing one side or the other when in most cases they’re not in a position to truly know. So you know, the league’s involvement in domestic violence raises a lot of issues as to what the league’s role should be.”

Dr. Abrams feels that the league needs to strike a balance “between accountability and compassion.”  According to ADA Render, the victim’s needs should always come first, but seeking retribution against the perpetrator isn’t necessarily the solution to the problem.  She believes that an offender must be held accountable, and in most cases, she feels that some jail time is needed (this could be equated to a suspension in sports), but in order to lessen the likelihood of repeat offenses, counseling is imperative.

Wallach says, “The league needs to start treating the different offenses based upon what’s best, not just for the league, but what’s best for the player, what’s best for the correction of the conduct, and for the rehabilitation of the player, and any dependents who rely upon him. I think I wouldn’t call it a merciful approach, I would call it a real-life approach that takes into account the player as a human being and his family as important parts of this process.”  He further suggests, “In lieu of coming up with the appropriate level of discipline the league should be trying to counsel the players, get them into a counseling program, provide help for the victims, the families – support the victim and the families.  Wallach emphasizes, “If the league is in a position to do anything worthwhile and helpful it’s that.”  It’s worth noting that the NBA, which is widely perceived as the most progressive sports league, is expected to revamp its domestic violence policy in just this manner in the new CBA.”

Dr. Abrams contends that this type of balanced approach is essential.  He gives credit to the NFL for putting domestic violence policies in place and hiring respected advocates, but he also sees flaws.  “The truth is the NFL is about business…You want to know the answer, follow the dollar. When did the [domestic violence foundations] all of a sudden get recruited to get involved with the NFL, all of which only do advocacy; they don’t do any treatment? That happened when Anheuser-Busch threatened to pull their sponsorship. That’s when things changed.”  While Abrams feels that this is a positive step and advocacy is productive, he believes that appropriate treatment and counseling is essential.  He emphasized that much of the work being championed is not by the people who do the treatment, and he considers this to be a problem.

“Domestic violence and sexual assault, one of the things they have in common is the perpetrators are not a homogeneous group. You can’t use a one-size-fits-all approach to them. You need to know the different factors that go into it.” Abrams clarifies, “You need a prevention program, you need to have a risk assessment program, and you need to have a treatment program.”  He feels the assessment aspect is “critical,” and unfortunately often bypassed or overlooked.

“If you don’t assess the risk factors of what goes into the dynamics of their behavior, for example, there is a difference, there are some folks that are violent everywhere. They’re just evil…angry, chronically irritable, narcissists who think that they can impose their will anywhere. And treatment for them will almost always be ineffective because they have no interest in changing. Okay?”  He continues, “There’s also borderline types.  Borderline types have pathological love attachments and are desperate to hold onto who they’re with. So sometimes you hear people say, oh, well, he would never do this to her because that’s not love. Well, that’s not true…It’s not true that he doesn’t love her, but he’s going to do everything that he can because he’s terrified of being abandoned by her.”  Treatment and counseling must be based upon the factors that focus on the offender’s mindset and profile.  “And so,” he concludes, “If we don’t have people who are assessing what the factors are that go into this person’s abusive tendencies, then the treatment is not going to work.”

I think one of the most important things that both Abrams and Wallach discussed was addressing the compulsion toward vindication.  I’ve seen a great deal of this attitude on social media, especially, as I mentioned in Part II, concerning the Derrick Rose trial.  People were anxious to pick sides based emotional reactions.  Fans of Rose didn’t want to believe he’d done anything wrong, and to phrase it as Dr. Abrams did in our conversation, most advocates wanted “a pound of flesh.”  This is understandable, especially since many advocates have been victims themselves, but we as society need to step back and say, “Hold on.  Let’s take a look at the facts; let’s weigh them as they come out; let’s do the right thing.”  This is what we’re asking the leagues to do, but the public needs to do this as well, and make it clear, otherwise we feed their PR machine mentality. (Not to mention reinforcing Roger Goodell’s opinion that the public isn’t capable of understanding the problem.)

Wallach pointed out that our justice system “still operates on a presumption of innocence.”  We rightly criticize the NFL for reacting, but we need to train ourselves to behave in an objective manner as well.  We need to demand justice, but remember that justice is not synonymous with revenge.  Each situation is different and must be dealt with accordingly.  This is why the NFL’s baseline 6-game suspension hasn’t worked.  They’ve allowed for mitigating or aggravating factors but haven’t set any guidelines regarding how those are to be addressed.  This makes the league appear wishy-washy and inconsistent.  They’ve set themselves up for failure in establishing a reactionary penalty that they no longer wish to stand behind or be held to.

Ezekiel Elliott represents the “no win” challenge to the NFL.  He’s currently the league’s standout running back and a strong contender in the MVP race.  Along with quarterback Dak Prescott, he’s half of a dynamic rookie duo that has propelled the playoff-hungry Cowboys to the number one position in their conference.  Elliott is also accused of a total of six domestic violence incidents.  The league claims the investigation is still “ongoing” but this seems a bit of a stretch seeing that the offenses were alleged to have occurred in February and July.

I asked Dr. Abrams to weigh in.  “Do I believe that the NFL can’t get access to criminal records and investigations to what’s gone on? No, I don’t believe that at all. I think that they’re not inclined to push the envelope because the Dallas Cowboys are doing so well. That’s wrong.”  He continues, “Now, do I know what happened? This is the other thing that people need to be reminded of. On this domestic violence, without witnesses, or sexual assault without witnesses, you have two people, the perpetrator and the victim, and domestic violence sometimes can be bi-directional. And sometimes you can have two of each, but the only people who know what really happened are in that room. And they have reasons to both tell the truth and to not.”  This appears to be the case in the Ezekiel Elliott investigation.

Criminal charges were not filed by the DA’s office in Ohio for the very reasons Dr. Abrams described.  However, no mention was made by the NFL of accusations in Florida, which were alleged to have happened in February until USA Today’s A.J. Perez and Tom Pelissaro broke the story last month.  If the NFL knew about this incident (and there is good reason to believe they did) they should have been transparent and forthcoming that they were aware and evaluating the situation.  As it turns out, no charges were filed in this incident either, since the altercation appeared to be bi-directional.  When I spoke with Officer Tom Patton to bring in the law enforcement view, he explained that in domestic violence calls this is often the case, and the officer is unable to determine a primary aggressor.  So, what do you do with it?  What are the options?

The easiest one for the NFL would be to keep it as quiet as possible through the remainder of the football season and then conclude the investigation quietly with a low-key announcement of “no wrong doing” to make it go away.  That is unless other allegations should surface.  In that case, they could slap a suspension on him at the beginning of next season, which would be of less impact than one reaching into the playoffs.  This handles the PR angle but what does it accomplish for the people actually involved?

Or the NFL could overreact to their mishandling of the Josh Brown incident and make a point of punishing a star player at an inopportune time, but I don’t see this happening, and it shouldn’t.  After all, who would it benefit outside of fans who are hoping their teams won’t face “Zeke” on the field?

As both Dr. Abrams and Daniel Wallach emphasized, the best solution would be one to benefit both the player and the victim; a “real-life approach,” as Wallach phased it.  It’s time to change the scenario.

Instead of trying to play cop, prosecutor, and judge, perhaps the humane solution would be to acknowledge that there was a problem.  Find out what the victim wants and see that her needs are met, whether for treatment and therapy, legal representation, or whatever SHE feels is important.

For the player, it’s apparent that he needs guidance and help, but in what manner?  I suggest starting with establishing a  reasonable suspension as  as a deterrent (if a player is found to be the aggressor.)  coupled with Dr. Abrams’ recommendations beginning with assessment.  As he said, treatments and deterrents will not be effective unless they are geared specifically toward the person who is being treated.  Once this has been done, then an appropriate counseling plan can be implemented, reducing the risk of the behavior being repeated while also giving the player a healthier mentality with which to approach relationships and life.

Unfortunately, as Abrams said in our conversation, “There are some people that are not going to respond to treatment.”  Assessment could help to identify who’s who, and if treatment and counseling fail to deter unacceptable behavior, then of course harsh punishments would be fitting, proper and necessary.  But that should be the end point – not the beginning.  With transparency, honesty, and a willingness to put people first, starting with the victims, the NFL is in a position to make a difference.  Failure to do this will lead to destroyed lives, careers and continue to damage public confidence in the integrity of the game of football.  What do you say, Mr. Goodell?  Isn’t it time to change the scenario?


Huge thanks to Daniel Wallach for taking the time out of an extremely busy schedule to share insights with me, to Dr. Mitch Abrams for speaking with me at length (expect a fascinating follow up from our conversation), to Copley Court Reporting for transcription of the interview with Dr. Abrams,  to ADA Kaylin Render for giving an inside peek into prosecuting domestic violence, and to Officer Tom Patton for sharing from a law enforcement perspective.

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