Two cases of player vi­o­lence against women turn the NFL sea­son ‘up­side down’

The Welland Tribune - - Sports - MARK MASKE AND ADAM KIL­GORE

The first three months of the Na­tional Foot­ball League sea­son un­folded as a needed re­prieve for a league in per­pet­ual cri­sis. His­toric of­fen­sive per­for­mances and thrilling games pre­dom­i­nated. Tele­vi­sion rat­ings soared. Past con­tro­ver­sies stayed dor­mant.

A week later, the NFL finds it­self in a fa­mil­iar, un­wanted place: The foot­ball sea­son is no longer just about foot­ball.

Two fresh cases, dif­fer­ent but con­nected, in­volv­ing NFL play­ers and vi­o­lence against women sparked a firestorm. Do­mes­tic vi­o­lence aware­ness or­ga­ni­za­tions blasted the league. Mis­han­dled cases from re­cent years flooded back into head­lines. The calm turned into a mess.

“The past week has taken a quiet sea­son,” one high-rank­ing NFC ex­ec­u­tive said, “and turned it up­side down.”

Last Tues­day evening, the Wash­ing­ton Red­skins claimed line­backer Reuben Foster, whom the San Fran­cisco 49ers had re­leased 48 hours ear­lier af­ter Tampa po­lice ar­rested him on a do­mes­tic vi­o­lence charge. On Fri­day, TMZ re­leased video from Fe­bru­ary of Kansas City Chiefs run­ning back Ka­reem Hunt shov­ing and kick­ing a woman out­side his Cleve­land ho­tel res­i­dence.

The two cases were near op­po­sites, but they both ex­posed flaws in the NFL’s han­dling of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence cases. In 2014, when NFL com­mis­sioner Roger Good­ell was pil­lo­ried for the league’s han­dling of a case in which Bal­ti­more Ravens run­ning back Ray Rice struck his fi­ancée in a ho­tel el­e­va­tor in At­lantic City, he vowed the league never would re­peat the same mis­takes on the is­sue of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. But last week’s crit­i­cism struck a fa­mil­iar chord.

“This isn’t as bad as Ray Rice,” said one per­son fa­mil­iar with the NFL’s in­ner work­ings. “But it’s ar­guably the same set of mis­takes. The in­ten­tions are 100 per cent bet­ter. But the process — they may not be mis­takes. But they cer­tainly make the league look bad.”

In­ter­views with eight peo­ple in and around the league, most of whom re­quested anonymity to dis­cuss a sen­si­tive topic, re­vealed three ar­eas that are most prob­lem­atic about the NFL’s ap­proach to do­mes­tic vi­o­lence cases. The league of­fice is at the mercy of teams which, like Wash­ing­ton, are will­ing to make a per­son­nel move that stains not only its im­age, but that of the en­tire NFL. It must grap­ple with the lim­i­ta­tions of its ca­pac­ity to con­duct in­ves­ti­ga­tions. And it must rec­og­nize that its past mis­han­dling of cases will en­hance the scru­tiny of new cases.

The Red­skins’ move to ac­quire Foster stunned many ri­vals for myr­iad rea­sons. Some teams were an­gered the Red­skins claimed Foster, be­liev­ing it sent a mes­sage to other play­ers that his be­hav­iour will be tol­er­ated. Team eval­u­a­tors had har­boured con­cerns over Foster since he came out of Alabama, and he slid to the 31st over­all pick ow­ing to con­cerns about his health and, more press­ing, be­havioural is­sues. Once in the NFL, he had been charged three times with a crime.

The Red­skins’ claim of Foster caused “a lot of head shak­ing” around the league, the NFC ex­ec­u­tive said. It quickly put the is­sue of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence in the NFL back in the spot­light. Wed­nes­day night, two net­work nightly news pro­grams devoted air­time to the NFL’s re­la­tion­ship with do­mes­tic abuse.

It also served as a re­minder of how one team’s de­ci­sion — Red­skins of­fi­cials said later they made the claim know­ing there would be pub­lic back­lash — can be­come a pub­lic-re­la­tions night­mare for the en­tire league. Teams are free to op­er­ate in their own in­ter­ests, and in the case of the Red­skins, there has long been a sense around the NFL that the team and league of­fice don’t al­ways see eye to eye.

The Red­skins’ de­ci­sion raised the is­sue of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, and Fri­day’s rev­e­la­tion of Hunt’s ac­tions on video placed a spot­light on it. Within hours of the tape sur­fac­ing, the Chiefs had cut Hunt, who later ad­mit­ted he lied to the Chiefs when ques­tioned in Fe­bru­ary. (It was not lost on other teams that the Chiefs still em­ploy wide re­ceiver Tyreek Hill, who was thrown off Ok­la­homa State’s foot­ball team af­ter po­lice charged him with stran­gling and punch­ing his preg­nant girl­friend. The Chiefs picked him in the 2016 draft.) De­spite the quick ac­tion against the league’s reign­ing rush­ing cham­pion, the NFL’s han­dling of Hunt — in­clud­ing the de­ci­sion never to speak with him — came un­der se­vere scru­tiny.

“The progress is that a great player on a great team was cut,” the per­son fa­mil­iar with NFL op­er­a­tions said. “You wouldn’t have seen that hap­pen five years ago. The more-of-the-same part is that the in­ter­nal com­mu­ni­ca­tions are dys­func­tional in these sit­u­a­tions.”

That per­son de­scribed a dis­con­nect be­tween the league’s in­ves­ti­ga­tors, its le­gal staff and its com­mu­ni­ca­tions ex­ec­u­tives. The in­ves­ti­ga­tors and lawyers fol­low the pro­ce­dures they be­lieve to be proper with­out re­al­iz­ing that the league of­fice’s cred­i­bil­ity with the pub­lic can be dam­aged when the NFL fails to ob­tain the video be­fore it’s re­leased by TMZ, or when Hunt is placed on paid leave with­out be­ing in­ter­viewed by the league.

The NFL’s in­abil­ity to land the video of Hunt shov­ing the woman forced the NFL to reckon with its in­ves­tiga­tive pro­to­cols. The league does not pay for se­cu­rity footage, a com­mon prac­tice of TMZ’s, in­stead re­ly­ing on co-op­er­a­tion with law en­force­ment. While some within the league will push to change that, oth­ers be­lieve pay­ing for videos of po­ten­tial crimes opens up thorny, un­wanted eth­i­cal ques­tions.

“The hardest part for the NFL is, I think its in­ten­tions are good in want­ing to do more than the law en­force­ment process, which seems to fail do­mes­tic vi­o­lence vic­tims too of­ten,” one NFL team ex­ec­u­tive said. “They don’t have sub­poena power, don’t have ac­cess to ev­i­dence. As much as you may try to do more than law en­force­ment, you may be able to do less ... The NFL has to fig­ure out whether it can run a process that truly al­lows it to do more.”

Some out­side ob­servers say that the NFL failed to learn its lessons from 2014. Toni Van Pelt, the pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Women, said that “this has been an on­go­ing prob­lem for years” and that Good­ell “has re­fused to im­ple­ment ef­fec­tive sys­temic change.”

NOW pre­vi­ously called for Good­ell’s res­ig­na­tion.

“All em­ploy­ers — es­pe­cially ones with a pro­file as large as the NFL — have an obli­ga­tion to lis­ten to women when they come for­ward and put pro­ce­dures into place that pro­tect vic­tims,” Van Pelt said in a writ­ten state­ment.

“The NFL must hold their teams and their play­ers ac­count­able.”

But there are strong feel­ings by some NFL teams that Good­ell is not to blame, and is in­stead be­ing let down by mis­steps and mis­cal­cu­la­tions by his staff in the league of­fice.

“I don’t think it’s ne­far­i­ous,” said the per­son with knowl­edge of the NFL’s in­ner work­ings.

“It’s not that they don’t care about do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. They do care. Roger cares deeply. It’s just the his­toric si­los of these dif­fer­ent parts of the or­ga­ni­za­tion and things not work­ing the way they should work from a man­age­ment per­spec­tive.”

The ques­tions rep­re­sent an un­wel­come flashback to 2014, es­pe­cially af­ter the Red­skins claimed a player fac­ing his sec­ond do­mes­tic vi­o­lence charge this year. Foster was charged in April af­ter his girl­friend said he struck her, but charges were dropped af­ter she re­canted.

“They have to fig­ure out a bet­ter way to let jus­tice or in­ves­ti­ga­tions take its course,” Philadel­phia Ea­gles de­fen­sive end Chris Long said.

“Be­cause it is a bad look. I wasn’t there. If that’s what hap­pened, there’s ab­so­lutely no ex­cuse for [Foster] play­ing foot­ball right now.

“We have good men in the NFL ... And the NFL needs to lead,” Long said. “Be­cause a lot of kids are look­ing at the NFL like, ‘Is that OK?’ When you al­low peo­ple back on the field quickly, it’s a bad look. It sends the wrong mes­sage.”

The fu­tures of Foster and Hunt re­main un­de­cided. Hunt be­came a free agent Mon­day when he passed through waivers un­claimed.

Foster is on the com­mis­sioner’s ex­empt list, mean­ing he is on paid leave while the league de­cides if and when to im­pose an un­paid sus­pen­sion un­der its per­sonal con­duct pol­icy. Rice never played again af­ter the video of his as­sault sur­faced, and while Hunt may face the same fate, his youth and tal­ent level lead some to be­lieve he’ll be given an­other chance af­ter he serves his even­tual sus­pen­sion.

From Long’s per­spec­tive, the dis­cus­sion of whether Hunt should play again needs to wait un­til he takes steps to re­ha­bil­i­tate him­self. “Now is not the time to talk about when,” Long said. Af­ter the NFL’s tur­bu­lent week, he be­lieves it needs to be ask­ing larger ques­tions.

“Do­mes­tic vi­o­lence and vi­o­lence against women is not an NFL prob­lem,” Long said. “It’s a so­ci­etal prob­lem.

That doesn’t mean that we’re not the most glar­ing ex­am­ple in pro sports and in pop­u­lar cul­ture. We can make a dif­fer­ence by tak­ing the right ac­tions as a league and as teams . ... If some­body just hit a woman, they don’t be­long on the field. Not right now. We can talk about when later. But not right now.”

GETTY IM­AGES FILE PHOTO

Ka­reem Hunt was re­leased by the Chiefs af­ter a video sur­faced that showed him as­sault­ing a woman in a Cleve­land ho­tel.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

San Fran­cisco 49ers line­backer Reuben Foster was ar­rested Nov. 24 at the team ho­tel on charges of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence.

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