Recent incidents of National Football League players committing acts of violence, especially violence against women, have once again ignited the debate over the NFL’s role in adjudicating such cases. More than four years after the league mishandled the Ray Rice incident, many fans and pundits are left wondering just how much the league has changed.
Two weeks ago, the Washington football team claimed linebacker Reuben Foster off waivers just two days after the San Francisco 49ers released the player following his arrest for domestic violence. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, police said Foster pushed his ex-girlfriend and slapped her. “Officers observed a one-inch scratch on the victim’s left collarbone,” police said. It was Foster’s third arrest this year and second for domestic violence. In April, he was arrested on felony counts of domestic violence, making criminal threats and possession of an assault weapon after the same woman said he had hit her back in February. She later recanted her statement and the domestic violence charge was dropped.
Upon signing with Washington, Foster was placed on the Commissioner’s Exempt List, which prohibits him from participating in games and team practices pending the NFL’s investigation.
Importantly, none of Foster’s alleged behavior was caught on video — that we know of. Such was not the case for Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt. On Dec. 3, TMZ published a graphic video showing Hunt shoving and kicking a woman in the hallway of a Cleveland hotel. The incident had been previously reported by Cleveland.com back in February. Police were called to the scene but made no arrests.
According to the Kansas City Star, neither the NFL nor the Chiefs made a formal request for the video until the day TMZ ran it, though the league maintains it had asked both police and the hotel for the footage. ESPN reports that the NFL didn’t interview Hunt or his accuser in the months since the February altercation. Hunt has since been released by the Chiefs.
Ray Rice was supposed to have resulted in sweeping changes regarding how the league handles its disciplinary procedures for players accused of violence. The institutional changes included the implementation of an independent investigation conducted by the NFL parallel to that of law enforcement, and a minimum six-game suspension for players — a huge step up from the initial two-game penalty levied against Rice.
But the league has failed to act consistently within its own self-imposed disciplinary framework, leading to questions over just how seriously it takes these issues when not backed into a corner by public outrage and undeniable video evidence. Time and again, the NFL has departed from its mandatory six-game penalty: Josh Brown initially got one game; Junior Galette got two; back in July, Jameis Winston got three games for groping an Uber driver. This is because the league’s personal conduct policy establishes the six-game baseline, but allows for “consideration given to any aggravating or mitigating factors,” and the NFL hasn’t always been transparent in explaining exactly what those factors are in each case.
Moreover, according to Senior Vice President and Special Counsel for Investigations Lisa Friel, the NFL’s investigative process is supposed to entail interviewing the accuser, interviewing the player and obtaining police reports and surveillance footage from both law enforcement and private establishments. In Hunt’s case, it appears the league failed on all fronts. The Chiefs did interview Hunt, who later admitted he lied to the team. And while the Chiefs knew the security video existed, The Athletic reports that “they were told by the NFL to stop pursuing it later in February once the league began its investigation.”
The fact that the NFL and its teams are doing the absolute minimum as far as their own investigative practices are concerned perfectly aligns with the dismissive (and apparently honest) attitudes of executives, however. In an interview with a local radio station, Washington’s Senior Vice President of Player Personnel Doug Williams tried to downplay the severity of the accusations against Foster and justify his team’s decision to sign him.
“We’ve got people who are in high, high, high, high places that have done far worse, and if you look at it realistically, they’re still up there,” Williams told The Team 980. “This is small potatoes [compared to] a lot of things out there.” Williams later apologized for his comments.
And what about the victims? In an interview with "Good Morning America" this past week, Foster’s ex-girlfriend detailed her abuse and said that Washington’s decision to sign Foster felt like another “slap in the face.” She also said that when she called the police in Tampa, 49ers officials tried to discredit her by telling officers she was the same accuser who had previously recanted an accusation. She also provided "GMA" with photos showing her bruises from the November altercation.
None of this is all that surprising, or new, to anyone who has been following the NFL’s need for visual proof before it takes these accusations seriously. Neither is the sheer inconsistency of NFL discipline over the last four years, nor the idea that the NFL and its teams will do only as much as is necessary to keep public reaction at bay.
After the Ray Rice video, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) established the Commission on Violence Prevention, a group of 11 outside experts advising the union on how to address issues of violence involving its players. The commission included two women, Deborah Epstein and Susan Else, with extensive experience in domestic violence. Signaling broader problems, both Epstein and Els, resigned from their posts in June, citing frustration that their recommendations continually fell on deaf ears.
“I’m done helping the NFL Players Association pay lip service to domestic violence prevention,” Epstein wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “Because I care deeply about violence against women in the NFL and beyond, I can no longer continue to be part of a commission that is essentially a fig leaf.
In light of the Hunt and Foster news, ESPN’s Katie Nolan talked to Epstein about her experience on the commission. “Let them get good press for engaging in a meaningful effort to fight domestic violence,” Epstein said. “The problem was, of course, that all they wanted was meaningful press.”
Therein lies the problem when a multibillion-dollar entity is tasked with regulating itself. There’s little motivation for engaging in any meaningful action; all that matters is damage control. Executives are tasked with quelling negative PR while keeping the business running profitably and effectively. We saw the same problem with the international governing body of soccer, FIFA, whose anti-bribery expert resigned in frustration two years before a massive corruption scandal sparked a wave of executive arrests.
Some have suggested the league should match TMZ’s practice of paying for surveillance videos. While that leads to a bevy of legal liabilities, it’s clear the NFL isn’t living up to its promise of a proactive and effective investigation process. The swift dismissal of Kareem Hunt doesn’t look quite so swift when you realize his misconduct had been an open secret for close to ten months. Whether that’s by design is up for discussion. But if the standard for proof in a league investigation is video evidence and accuser statements, it’s pretty pitiful that the NFL finds itself two steps behind the likes of TMZ and "GMA."