The first three months of the NFL 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 fiancee 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 percent 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 that, 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.
Progress, or more of the same?
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 behavior will be tolerated. Team evaluators had harbored 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, behavioral 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 cooperation 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.”
‘The NFL needs to lead’
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 okay?’ 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.”