Early Test for NFL’s New Domestic Violence Policy
49ers DT Ray McDonald's weekend arrest came two days after Roger Goodell established a six-game ban for first-time offenses. What happens next? Plus, examining Alex Smith's extension, the lack of surprises on cutdown day and more
Much to address this morning, three days out from the NFL’s 95th season. I was planning to address the Roger Goodell about-face on domestic violence later in the column, but the Ray McDonald arrest at 3 a.m. Sunday in San Jose, and the 49ers defensive tackle being charged with felony domestic violence, changed all that. So this bit of inside-MMQB for those waiting for my piece on Green Bay GM Ted Thompson: We’re going to run it Wednesday here at The MMQB, when we can give it proper treatment the day before the season. Today’s budget:
- An early test for the new Roger Goodell policy on domestic violence.
- Alex Smith gets what he deserves, a new four-year contract that doesn’t overpay him.
- Theorizing why Michael Sam was still unemployed as of midnight.
- A body double made Champ Bailey outdated.
- A relatively boring cutdown weekend, if you ask me. (Even if you ask one veteran NFL personnel man. “Man, that waiver wire sucked this weekend,’’ he said Sunday.)
- The Browns lead the league in something, anyway. (Defensive backs.)
- Seattle is shallow on the offensive line, and an interesting punt-returner call by Pete Carroll.
- Story of the weekend not named Michael Sam: Ben Garland. (Go ahead. Search him.)
- I talk to Logan Mankins. He doesn’t sound bitter, but how can he not be?
- Why you want Bill Vinovich or Craig Wrolstad to be the ref at your team’s game this weekend.
On with the show.
* * *
News item: Goodell toughens NFL’s domestic violence policy.
Newsier item: Forty-Niner tests it immediately.
San Jose police responded to a complaint early Sunday morning involving San Francisco defensive tackle Ray McDonald and a woman that NBC Bay Area reported is pregnant. She had bruises on her neck and arms, the Sacramento Bee reported, and McDonald was jailed on suspicion of felony domestic violence charges. He was released later in the morning on $25,000 bond and ordered to appear in court Sept. 15.
“Felony domestic violence is a serious charge in any jurisdiction,” said Kim Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, in a phone interview Sunday afternoon, hearing the news for the first time. “The fact that they are discussing this as a felony says to me the law-enforcement investigators believe it is serious. I expect the commissioner to respond definitively and assertively.”
Gandy was one of six national authorities on domestic violence who helped Goodell shape his decisive new policy, first in a lengthy phone call in mid-August and then in a meeting at the league offices in Manhattan on Aug. 21. The MMQB has talked to three of the outside experts called on by Goodell, and all were encouraged by the tougher policy on domestic violence laid out by Goodell: a six-game ban for a first offense (though with some wiggle room for “mitigating factors”), and a year-to-lifetime ban for a repeat offender.
Then came the McDonald news, disappointing for the substance and stunning in its timeliness.
“We are looking into it,” league spokesman Greg Aiello said Sunday. That was the only statement—but it seemed clear that the league may not wait for final court adjudication in the case. Goodell’s letter to the owners Thursday addressing the new policy said the policy is “effective immediately” and the urgency of the issue could push the NFL to act sooner than the courts. The league’s Personal Conduct Policy opens the possibility for discipline before the courts rule if Goodell feels there is an “immediate and substantial risk to the integrity and reputation of the NFL.”
“The [domestic violence] policy is going to be tested quickly,” said Gandy, a veteran of the fight to end domestic abuse. “I think it is probably a good thing for a policy to be tested quickly, to see if the policy works the way it was meant to work. I am very sorry to hear this news, but it is a reminder how frequent and common domestic violence in this country is, unfortunately. I believe the commissioner will say, ‘This is our policy and we are going to stand behind it and implement it fairly.’ My experience with him is that he will be fair and even-handed.”
But the news about McDonald, a valuable starter on the San Francisco defensive front seven already coping with the nine-game suspension to its best pass-rusher, Aldon Smith, and knowing the team could be without rehabbing star linebacker NaVorro Bowman until midseason, could not come at a worse time. Being in trouble with the law is one thing. But coach Jim Harbaugh has been open with his players about seeing red over domestic violence. The Niners were mostly mum Sunday about the incident, but it will be interesting to see if the Niners act on McDonald once all the facts are in before the commissioner does.
If McDonald did indeed lay his hands on a woman in the tenor of these times, he has just made the biggest mistake of his career—and at just about the worst time possible. Goodell obviously views this issue as one the NFL has to take a lead role. On Thursday—with Russian troops pouring into Ukraine, with a presidential news conference that day discussing crises in Iraq and Syria, with ISIS creating an international scare, with a cease-fire in Gaza holding perilously, with Ferguson, Mo., still simmering—NBC led “The NBC Nightly News” with Goodell’s re-write of the domestic violence policy.
What was so impactful to Goodell and to those in the league who worked on this issue was the staying power of the outrage after the commissioner suspended Ray Rice of the Ravens just two games for an incident in which his then-fiancée was knocked unconscious in an altercation with Rice in February. Five days after the Rice decision, CNN led its morning newscast with a panel ripping the league over the light sentence. Five days. In his letter to owners last week, Goodell recognized the outcry, and the league’s role in society that he underestimated. Goodell wrote: “The public response reinforced my belief that the NFL is held to a higher standard, and properly so. Much of the criticism stemmed from a fundamental recognition that the NFL is a leader, that we do stand for important values, and that we can project those values in ways that have a positive impact beyond professional football. We embrace this role and the responsibility that comes with it.”
In his early fact-finding, Goodell talked to experts inside and outside his office—mostly outside. “When we talked,” said Gandy, “he said, basically, that he wanted to educate himself. He was genuine in wanting to understand the causes and wanting to know the best role for the league. At one point, we were talking about law enforcement, and he said to me, ‘Why isn’t everyone angry at the judge and the prosecutor in the Rice case? We actually did something, rather than nothing.’ I said, ‘These are your fans who are angry. They are not fans of the judge and the prosecutor.'”
The three advocates interviewed by The MMQB were pleased with what the NFL did last week, but clear they will be watching to see how the league implements its discipline and outreach programs. “If they address domestic violence at the level they are capable of, it can be game changing,” said Rita Smith of the group Violence Against Woman. She was in the meeting with the league Aug. 21. “I feel pretty strongly, as of right now, that Commissioner Goodell and the NFL are committed to this. I believed they listened to us and took our advice with weight. It took a while, and a lot of outward pressure, but we are here. They need to follow through. So I hope I feel as good about it in six months, or a year. If I don’t, I have no problem applying a little more pressure. That’s what it took to get them here.”
Said Esta Soler, president of Futures Without Violence: “At the end of the day, the letter the commissioner released is a very strong letter. But the work now begins. That was just a letter. That was day one. Now the commitment of resources and time is how we will evaluate how committed the NFL is to this issue. We certainly applaud the NFL for the letter, and for increasing the penalty and laying out a program. Now they have to do the program. And they need to see it through. The letter is a strong letter. And it goes beyond just the penalty, which is a good thing. Because that’s how you change culture and that’s how you change behavior. We get that. But now a serious commitment to time and resources has to accompany that outline.”
One more point. One of the late additions to the letter Goodell sent to owners was trying to leave the league some flexibility on a hard-and-fast six-game ban for first offenses. Aggravating factors—assaulting a pregnant woman, for instance—could make the sanction harsher. But there also is no guarantee that the ban could be as long as six games. Read the letter:
“Effective immediately, violations of the Personal Conduct Policy regarding assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault that involve physical force will be subject to a suspension without pay of six games for a first offense, with consideration given to mitigating factors, as well as a longer suspension when circumstances warrant. Among the circumstances that would merit a more severe penalty would be a prior incident before joining the NFL, or violence involving a weapon, choking, repeated striking, or when the act is committed against a pregnant woman or in the presence of a child.”
So I think any confirmed assault will merit more than two games, but there’s no guarantee every one will be at least six. “We were clear in our meeting with the commissioner: One size doesn’t fit all, and one size rarely fits all,” said Gandy. “We recognize there are greatly different levels of violence.”
We’ll see how steadfast the league is on the issue, both in discipline and education, but last Thursday was a start. The McDonald case tests it immediately. “Movements are made of moments,” said Soler, “and this is a moment.” It won’t take long to find out if the movement is working.