Last Saturday, the San Francisco 49ers cut Reuben Foster after he was arrested for domestic violence for the second time in a calendar year. The Washington NFL team picked him up off of waivers just two days later. The following Friday, a video emerged of Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt shoving and kicking a woman at a Cleveland hotel. The Chiefs released him the same day.
Four years after TMZ released a video of then-Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee unconscious and dragging her limp body out of an elevator in an Atlantic City casino, the NFL’s mishandling of domestic violence has once again become front-page news.
“It did not surprise me at all, because neither the league nor the players association has taken meaningful action to eradicate domestic violence from the NFL,” Deborah Epstein, a professor of law and co-director of the Georgetown University Law Center’s Domestic Violence Clinic, told ThinkProgress in an interview this week.
While the league (Where are you hiding, Roger Goodell?) and team owners (What are you thinking, Dan Snyder?) have been the recipient of their fair share of much-deserved criticism for their actions — or, inactions, to be more precise — during this time, Epstein points out that there’s another group that deserves further scrutiny: The NFL Players Association (NFLPA).
Four years ago, in the wake of Rice’s video going viral, the NFLPA created a commission on domestic violence. When Epstein was initially approached to join the group, she pressed the NFLPA leaders, “Is this all just window dressing, or are you really serious about making a change?”
They were adamant that the commission was not just for show. As NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith told USA TODAY Sports at the time, “This was designed to get it right.” Epstein was initially thrilled to be a part of it.
“I thought, if we can do something about [domestic violence] in professional athletics, that will trickle down to other areas in our culture,” Epstein said.”I felt — in retrospect, naively — optimistic.”
But things didn’t go as planned, and this summer, Epstein created shockwaves when she publicly quit the commission with an op-ed in the Washington Post, “I’m done helping the NFL Players Association pay lip service to domestic violence prevention.”
In her op-ed, she revealed that the commission had worked with families of the players to create a list of recommendations that would help the players association support women and partners of NFL players to lessen the likelihood that they would be victimized by violence. The report was finished in 2016, and while Epstein can’t offer specific details about the report’s findings, owing to a confidentiality agreement she signed, she nevertheless found that it included concrete and implementable ideas to address the problem.
And yet, in the two years since, the NFLPA hasn’t enacted any of the suggestions. The completed report has gone ignored and untouched. And Epstein was left with the feeling that she had to stand up and be vocal about why she was resigning from the commission.
“I felt used,” Epstein said.
Susan Else, former president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, resigned at the same time as Epstein. ThinkProgress has reached out to the NFLPA for comment, but has not heard back at the time of publication.
Epstein says that it has been incredibly frustrating to watch the events of the last week. Knowing that the NFLPA has had the means at hand to choose a different path, she finds it difficult to take anything that league stakeholders have to say about change and accountability seriously. As she said in the Post: It’s all just lip service.
“The message they’re sending is, ‘Ignore our words and look at our actions,’” Epstein said. “If a player can be let go from one team because of domestic violence, and immediately picked up with another, the message is crystal clear: This behavior is not going to harm you. The words that you speak become irrelevant.”
Ultimately, none of this is going away. While domestic violence is a major problem throughout society, working with partners of NFL players really taught Epstein that in the league, gender roles are stuck in the 1950s. Women are explicitly told that their job is to support a player, no matter what — their wants and needs always take precedence.
“If you have a subculture where gender roles are so stark and so retrogressive, it seems much more likely that men are going to behave in ways that used to be condoned, including violence against women,” Epstein said.
Epstein hopes that the NFLPA uses the increased attention on domestic violence as an impetus to pick up the dormant report and start implementing real change. It won’t be easy, instantaneous, or absolute, but its better than simply looking the other way.
“I think the events of the last week give them another chance,” she said. “There are so many moments where they could decide that this is going to be the time where we’re really going to make a difference.”
“Ray Rice was not a one-time thing, unfortunately. Take the opportunity now.”