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How Public Health Can Help Tackle the NFL's Domestic Violence Epidemic

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footballOctober marks National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. In the wake of the National Football League’s (NFL’s) ongoing Ray Rice scandal and several incidents of domestic violence perpetrated by its players, this pressing issue is finally starting to grab the nation’s attention. To recap recent events, the NFL has been under fire for its mishandling of several domestic violence cases, and in particular for issuing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice a mere two-game suspension after he assaulted his partner in an elevator so brutally that she was knocked unconscious. Compare this to Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon’s initial 16-game suspension for allegedly smoking marijuana.
The domestic violence problem is not unique to the NFL, as other professional sports leagues such as Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League have all struggled with domestic violence issues. Indeed, the problem occurs across virtually every segment of society and according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, one in every four women in the United States will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. However, reports show that the NFL has led the way in arrests in domestic violence issues. Since 2000, 48% of all violent crime arrests made in the NFL have been for domestic violence, which is more than double the national average. 
In reaction to the public outcry and concerns raised by major sponsors, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced at the end of August that the NFL would be updating its policies around domestic and sexual violence. The media, for the most part, has focused on the league’s punitive policies and their disciplinary authority over its players accused of domestic violence. Effective immediately, the league’s new policy establishes a minimum six-game suspension for NFL personnel charged with domestic violence or sexual assault. Although the debate continues to rage as to whether the penalty is still too lenient, a similarly strong emphasis needs to be placed on primary prevention of domestic violence in the NFL. To really have an impact on domestic violence, the NFL’s new policies must also take a public health-like approach to the problem and focus not just on punishing offenders but on preventing domestic violence and addressing its underlying risk factors.
A Public Health Approach to Domestic Violence
Domestic violence is now clearly recognized as a social problem and one for which public health prevention strategies can complement a criminal justice approach. Addressing domestic violence demands overlapping and largely complementary approaches and perspectives. For example, a gender perspective emphasizes patriarchy, power relations and structural gender inequality as the driver of the problem.  The criminal justice approach responds to the problem after it has occurred by identifying the perpetrators of the violence, determining their guilt and appropriately sentencing them. The focus is on deterrence, incarceration and the punishment and rehabilitation of perpetrators. A public health approach, however, draws on both of these approaches and plays a pivotal role in tackling domestic violence by emphasizing primary prevention.
Using a public health framework means taking primary prevention as a means to reduce domestic violence by addressing the “upstream determinants” and risk factors for domestic violence. Key risk factors identified for the perpetration by men of domestic violence can be arranged across individual, relational, community and societal levels. At an individual level, low income, low education, exposure to maltreatment as a child, anti-social personality, harmful use of alcohol and illicit drug use, and acceptance of violence have all been cited as risk factors for perpetrating domestic violence. Risk factors at the community and societal levels include weak community sanctions, poverty and traditional gender norms and social norms supportive of violence.
According to the World Health Organization’s Report on Preventing Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Against Women, primary prevention strategies with emerging evidence of effectiveness to address the risk factors contributing to the perpetration of domestic violence include:

  • School-based programs to prevent dating violence
  • Empowerment and participatory approaches for addressing gender inequality, including gender-equality training, and communication and relationship skills training
  • Reduction in access to, and harmful use of, alcohol and drugs
  • Changes in social and cultural gender norms through media awareness campaigns and through working with men and boys

In light of all of the above, how then is the NFL incorporating public health prevention strategies in its new domestic violence policies?
Prevention Policies in the NFL’s Response to Domestic Violence
In his August 28 letter (the Letter) to team owners, the NFL Commissioner outlined six new policies on domestic violence and importantly, five of the policies are proactive with the aim of preventing the violence before it happens. The NFL has pledged to work with domestic violence experts to expand the scope of their education and training programs (including introducing educational components into their college, high school and youth football programs). They will not only enhance their support services and resources to NFL personnel and families, but team personnel will also be required to undergo training to help them identify risk factors associated with domestic violence. In the Letter, the NFL recognized that “domestic violence and sexual assault are broad social issues” and promised to “explore meaningful ways to incorporate domestic violence and sexual assault awareness and prevention” into their public service work. During Week 4 of the season, the NFL devoted $3 million worth of commercial time during games to broadcast public service announcements from the NO MORE anti-domestic violence and sexual assault campaign. They also recently announced that a series of new public service announcements featuring former professional football players are set to air during all NFL games starting Oct. 23.
The NFL’s inclusion of policies focusing on prevention is a good start, but we need to ensure that they are not just lip service and that robust, consistent and effective education and training programs are implemented at all levels of the sport. A comprehensive prevention program should also not neglect key risk factors for domestic violence such as alcohol abuse and the illicit use of drugs. As such, domestic violence programs should not just be stand-alone programs but should be coordinated with and integrated into a stronger support system addressing the mental and physical health problems of NFL athletes. Using a public health approach, the impact of these programs and services should be continually monitored and evaluated and when necessary, adapted to improve their effectiveness.
Undoubtedly the NFL’s biggest challenge in addressing the risk factors to prevent domestic violence will be battling its inherent culture of violence. As former NFL tight end Nate Jackson writes in his book on his personal ‘odyssey into the brutal hive of the NFL’, “[v]iolence is football’s winning formula.” The league needs to make sure that all of its actions and policies support a climate of non-tolerance to violence off of the field and one that that respects the human rights of girls and women. Education and awareness campaigns are crucial to help create the necessary shift in culture but the league also needs to ensure that its message on gender equality and violence is consistent and coherent. This extends, for example, to its handling of other issues such as the pending lawsuits launched by cheerleaders alleging that their teams did not fairly compensate them and last year’s Miami Dolphin’s bullying scandal in which Jonathon Martin was continuously harassed by teammates and subjected to misogynistic slurs about his sister and mother. The NFL should go beyond just establishing an advisory group of women but should strive to bring more women into the NFL’s leadership and management ranks. In order to begin to address the root of the domestic violence problem, the NFL needs to change its culture to one that supports gender equality and that does not tolerate violence against women.
The NFL has been losing its battle with domestic violence and has hit a low point with its botched handling of the Ray Rice case. Its new domestic violence policies focusing on prevention show some promise and could have a real impact on curbing domestic violence in the league. Given the NFL’s immense power and reach, it has a unique opportunity to potentially spur a cultural shift by tackling norms in sport and in other social institutions that support gender inequality and violence against women. To help make this a reality, civil society, the media and the NFL’s own fans need to be vigilant and keep the pressure on. We must demand that the NFL not only set appropriate punitive policies but that they also take a strong proactive public health approach with the aim of preventing domestic violence before it occurs.

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The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.

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