Five Things the NFL Is Doing to Combat Its Domestic-Abuse Problem

In emotional testimony to Congress, a league executive explains.

After much delay, members of Congress finally have a response to recent accounts of assault and battery put forth by National Football League players' wives—and they're not stopping with the NFL.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., held a hearing on domestic violence in professional sports, broadly defined, on Tuesday afternoon, also summoning representatives from Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee.

"Sports have always played a huge role culturally and otherwise in the United States," Sen. Rockefeller began. "Just last week on Thanksgiving, millions of Americans were probably playing more attention to their TV sets than to their turkeys." Ranking member John Thune, R S-D, scolded the leagues for not sending their commissioners.

The hearing comes following public pressure to respond to the now-infamous video of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancée unconscious in an elevator. The video sparked national outrage and a wave of activism, with national women's groups like UltraViolet staging elaborate campaigns to raise awareness about the issue.

Yet Rockefeller, in his opening statement was determined to broaden the scope of the conversation, noting that professional athletes of all stripes serve as role models for young Americans and ought to be held to the highest standard. "I hope we can skip protestations that domestic violence is a larger societal problem and not unique to sports," he said.

If protestations were what he was expecting, he didn't get any from NFL executive and former player Troy Vincent. In an emotional testimony Tuesday afternoon, Vincent said that his mother was a domestic-abuse survivor, and, in a sometimes quavering voice, he laid out five steps the NFL is taking to combat its domestic-abuse problem.

First, Vincent said, through efforts lead by the league commissioner, the NFL is conducting a "thorough review" of its conduct policy. "We will create a conduct committee responsible for review and to recommend changes to the conduct policy going forward," he said.

Second, the league is deploying a comprehensive mandatory education program for more than 5,000 men and women associated with the NFL. What exactly the curriculum will be is less clear. "Our goal is to ensure that everyone understands and has the full scope of this behavior," Vincent said, "and is familiar with the warning signs associated with these crimes."

Third, the NFL is training critical-response teams to quickly react to family violence and sexual assault, including ensuring safety and medical, legal, and financial support. That's something NFL wives, such as Dewan Smith-Williams, have recently said the league is critically lacking. (In her account to The Washington Post, Smith-Williams said when she called the league to report domestic abuse, respondents would say, "'Oh, we're really sorry that you are going through this. We'll look into it.' But you never heard back. There's no one available for the wives.")

Fourth, Vincent said the league is supporting leading sexual-assault awareness and prevention groups such as the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, although he didn't specify what exactly that support entailed.

Fifth, the league is raising awareness about domestic violence by working in collaboration with the No More campaign and the Joyful Heart Foundation, Vincent said. This awareness will take the form of public-service announcements during games, according to Vincent's testimony, and promoting programs to educate those who play, coach, and manage NFL teams about the realities of sexual assault.

Such steps are unlikely to satisfy the millions of fans who felt that the NFL's response to the Ray Rice video was inadequate. Rice had been suspended indefinitely only after the video was made public, and according to league insiders, has already had several teams express interest in him.

A similar hearing requested by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., was pushed back indefinitely earlier this year when outgoing House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and ranking member Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said the hearing had been discussed but never agreed to. Now it's unclear whether it will ever go forward, as National Journal reported earlier this fall.

As to whether specific NFL players will be held to account for their actions? "We're working hard to balance the issues of a fair process with the goal of preventing and punishing these communities," Vincent said.