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The NFL Owes Domestic Violence Victims a Big, Fat Check

Christian Petersen/Getty Images Sport

The National Football League over the weekend announced the appointment of three domestic violence experts, including a former federal prosecutor, to serve as outside advisors on league policies. It’s also creating a new position, Vice President for Social Responsibility, and promoted a longtime league official to take it. All four of these people are women.

It’s the second major effort that Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL have made to address the league's domestic violence problem, following the controversy over Ray Rice and the beating of his (then) fiancée. The first effort was the announcement, several weeks ago, of new and more severe punishment for players who commit acts of domestic violence. 

Both moves were commendable and significant. They still do not suffice. If the NFL and its owners want to "demonstrate our commitment to address this issue seriously and effectively," as Goodell put it recently, then they should start writing checks. Big ones.

You're probably wondering, do we know if NFL players are particularly prone to domestic violence? The answer is no. The best analysis I’ve seen has come from Benjamin Morris, of, who found that domestic violence rates among football players is “downright extraordinary” once you take into account their relatively high income. But the NFL needs a thorough, independent investigation of all the available evidence—one that gets access to more detailed data and calls upon expertise from outside scholars. The National Organization for Women has called for such an inquiry and, with any luck, organizing one will be on the agenda for the league's new advisers.

But the question isn't whether NFL players have a propensity to commit domestic violence. The question is whether the league has a propensity to excuse such behavior. That seems pretty clear. The athletes rarely face serious punishment, even in clear cases of wrongdoing. That's what first turned the Rice episode into such a national controversy. Goodell, who two years ago vowed to do something about domestic violence, gave Rice a suspension of just two games—and this was after viewing the first security video from that Atlantic City hotel.

Although the video didn't show Rice hitting Janay Palmer, it did show Rice dragging her, unconscious, from an elevator. That should have been enough.

The NFL's history on domestic violence matters, not least because of the message it has sent to the rest of society. And there's a way for the league to make amends now. As I noted in my article on Monday, victims of domestic violence need more services than either the government or non-profit organizations can presently supply. The best example is probably transitional housing—that is, shelter for families that are escaping abusers. The organizations that provide such shelter report that they are unable to meet about 6,000 such requests on a typical day, according to a survey by the National Network to End Domestic Violence.

Another problem is the lack of long-term research on domestic violence prevention programs. Researchers have come up with all kinds of promising approaches. Many focus on children, particularly those who grow up in houses with abuse and are, statistically, the most likely to become batterers as adults. But hard data, studying the effects of those programs after ten or twenty years, doesn’t exist. And without that data, it’s hard to be certain which strategies hold the most promise.

The common element in both of these problems—insufficient services and inadequate data—is a lack of funding. The league could do something about that, by setting up a foundation whose mission was to fund domestic violence research and services. League owners could pay into the fund, at first with a one-time endowment gift and subsequently with ongoing contributions. In the future, when players commit acts of domestic violence and serve suspensions, the wages they relinquish could supplement the funds.

The money is certainly there. Last year total NFL revenues were more than $9 billion. Commissioner Roger Goodell has said he’d like to increase that amount to $25 billion by 2027 and many experts think the league can do that. The NFL itself collects only a fraction of that, in the form of $6 million annual dues from each team, and each franchise has its own expenses. But the Ravens last year had an operating income of $56.7 million, according to Forbes. Only one organization (the Detroit Lions) lost money while several made quite a bit more. The Washington Redskins and New England Patriots each had operating incomes of more than $140 million and one franchise, the Dallas Cowboys, had an operating income of more than $245 million. (Goodell's salary, by the way, was $44 million last year.)

Some league offiicals and team owners would surely bristle at the suggestion they set up and finance a domestic violence foundation. They would point out that they already promote charitable causes, with dollars and, in the case of players, with their time. That's true—and utterly irrelevant. For years, the NFL has looked the other way, effectively condoning domestic violence.

This wouldn't be charity. This would be restitution.