Whatever Happened to the Congressional NFL Hearing?
New stories suggest Ray Rice has company.
The scandal may have faded, but the NFL's domestic-abuse problem persists.
On Friday, The Washington Post's "PostEverything" published a disturbing account of the battery and demeaning treatment faced by National Football League players' wives. In it, two affected women detail not only what they personally endured for years, but also the broader culture of abuse within the NFL and why victims so often keep quiet.
These testimonies come after a now-infamous video surfaced in September showing Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancée unconscious in an elevator and dragging her inert body away. Such treatment sounds all too familiar to many NFL players' wives, according to testimonies in The Post.
"You will hear of a wife murdered before you hear another one come forward," one wife, who chose to remain anonymous to protect her husband's career, and perhaps herself, told The Post. Sometimes the abusive dynamics carry on even after players leave the league. Dewan Smith-Williams—whose husband, Wally Williams, left the league in 2003—continued to suffer abuse even after they separated. After her husband left the Maryland home they shared, he returned several years later to pick up a laptop and several other items Smith-Williams said didn't belong to him. "I called the police and he snatched the phone from me," she said. "I called from other phones, and he would do the same. There was a glass door and he pushed me through it." When the police called her back, Smith-Williams had to be taken to the emergency room in Maryland.
Such stories, Smith-Williams claims, are commonplace, yet it took gossip website TMZ procuring and publishing the Ray Rice video to make the public care. After its release, the NFL, which had briefly suspended Rice earlier in the year based on video footage taken outside of the elevator, quickly increased their stated punishment from a mere two-game suspension to indefinite suspension. Still, troubling questions remained as to whether the league already had the more graphic footage from inside the elevator available to them when the shorter suspension was made. Some alleged that officials, including league Commissioner Roger Goodell, had attempted a cover-up to protect the star, and the testimony from Smith-Williams states such cover-ups are endemic to the culture of the NFL.
In the month since that video captured the nation's attention, little has happened beyond raising basic awareness. UltraViolet, a national women's group, staged an elaborate campaign, creating a viral image of a model advertising CoverGirl's NFL makeup while sporting a photoshopped black eye. And their staged flyovers at stadiums around the country received ample coverage (the message floating airly behind the planes: #GoodellMustGo). Yet that hasn't translated directly into political heat.
A hearing requested by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., just days after the video's release, was pushed back indefinitely after House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and ranking member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said such a hearing had been discussed but never agreed to. Now it's unclear whether the hearing will ever go forward.
Even after Chicago Bears General Manager Jerry Angelo told USA Today last week that teams failed to punish players in "hundreds and hundreds" of domestic-violence cases throughout his decades-long career, calls for political intervention did not materialize. The biggest fallout came when Angelo took back his comments following sharp criticism from others in the league. (USA Today stood by the story.)
While there's no simple policy fix, simply raising awareness about the NFL's culture and finding out more about what goes on could pressure the league to provide support systems for the women who need them. The hearings on steroid use in Major League Baseball, for instance, may have started out as a mere media circus when a House committee compelled testimony from a half dozen major league baseball players back in 2005. But ultimately such hearings put pressure on the league to improve its bruised reputation, paving the way to the toughest drug-testing program in professional sports.
There are a few areas where Congress could explicitly exert control. One Capitol Hill aide I spoke with pointed to opportunities to influence football culture at public universities, as well as the NFL's tax-exempt status. And indeed, a bill put forth by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., to end the NFL's tax-exempt status gained steam after the Rice video went viral. While that bill was originally drafted in response to the NFL's use of "Washington Redskins," a team name widely seen as disparaging to Native Americans, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid signed onto the bill only after the Rice video went public. "As the past few weeks have illustrated, the problems within the NFL are far and wide," Reid said at the time. "Today we are taking action and I gladly stand with Senator Cantwell in calling for the end of NFL's not-for-profit status."
The latest footnote on this saga came over the weekend, when CBS Sports reported Rice could be reinstated to the NFL within the next month: "There is every expectation his playing status will be resolved before the NFL's investigation into its handling of his case, being conducted by former FBI chief Robert Mueller, is completed," sources said. Lather, rinse, repeat.