Before the Chiefs’ kickoff luncheon on Wednesday in Kansas City, team chairman Clark Hunt said he expected NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to address the domestic violence issue facing the league.
On Thursday, Goodell made good on Hunt’s prediction.
Acknowledging he “didn’t get it right” with a two-game suspension for Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, the commissioner announced tougher penalties for players who commit domestic violence, including six weeks for a first offense and at least a year for a second offense.
“I think it’s a big issue in terms of our society,” Hunt said of domestic violence. “It’s a societal problem; it’s not (just) an NFL problem. But the NFL is a very big place. There are a lot of players, and clearly we have seen in the last few years that domestic violence has touched the NFL.
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“I know it’s something the commissioner is very focused on, and … he’ll take steps in the future to make it something that is more in the forefront in terms of the NFL taking a leadership (role) on.”
Goodell was widely criticized for handing out such a light suspension for Rice when compared with four-game suspensions for players violating other league policies, such as for using performance-enhancing drugs.
Goodell made Thursday’s announcement in a letter and memo sent to all 32 team owners and asked the clubs to distribute it to all players on their rosters and post it in their locker rooms.
“Domestic violence and sexual assault are wrong,” Goodell wrote. “They are illegal. They are never acceptable and have no place in the NFL under any circumstances.”
Consequently, an initial domestic violence offense now will draw a six-week ban without pay, although Goodell’s memo says “more severe discipline will be imposed if there are aggravating circumstances such as the presence or use of a weapon, choking, repeated striking, or when the act is committed against a pregnant woman or in the presence of a child.”
A second offense will result in banishment from the league, but a player will be allowed to petition for reinstatement after a year.
The NFL Players Association said it had been informed of the increased punishments.
“As we do in all disciplinary matters, if we believe that players’ due process rights are infringed upon during the course of discipline, we will assert and defend our members’ rights,” the union statement said.
The personal conduct policy is not subject to collective bargaining with the players union, and the commissioner has leeway to impose punishments for such off-field violations.
“My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values,” Goodell wrote. “I didn’t get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.”
Rice struck his wife, Janay, who was his fiancee at the time, in an Atlantic City casino hotel elevator six months ago. A security camera video showed Rice dragging her unconscious body out of the elevator. Rice was accepted into a pretrial intervention program this past spring that will lead to the dismissal of a third-degree aggravated assault charge against him.
Rice has never said exactly what happened in the elevator. He has said his actions were “totally inexcusable.”
The punishment for Rice drew plenty of attention, including from Congress. Numerous groups that advocate for women and families criticized the penalty as too lenient.
“My initial reaction is, ‘Really?’” former NFL Players Association president Kevin Mawae told USA Today. “I can’t believe he (Goodell) admitted he got something wrong. With that whole Ray Rice situation, it was a pretty common thought that it was a lenient sentence when guys get suspended six games for far lesser issues. …
“For him to backtrack, my question is, what does this do for Ray Rice? Are they going to impose a stronger penalty on him? Or is it ‘Oops, our mistake. But going forward we’re going to be more strict.’
“I think it’s the right move as far as making guys accountable. There’s no reason to physically abuse your spouse, your girlfriend or a woman. That to me is intolerable.”
The Chiefs have had two players in recent years involved in cases of abuse toward women.
Linebacker Jovan Belcher fatally shot the mother of his child and then himself in December 2012.
And in 2008, running back Larry Johnson was benched by the club for three weeks and suspended by Goodell for one game after two incidents at nightclubs where Johnson was accused of using his open hand to push a woman in September and of spitting a drink at a woman in October.
Goodell noted that if any NFL employee — not just a player — is charged with domestic violence or sexual assault, there will be a mandatory evaluation and, where professionally indicated, counseling or other specialized services.
Saying that the NFL is held to a higher standard “and properly so,” Goodell wrote: “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. We will listen openly, engage our critics constructively, and seek continuous improvement in everything we do. We will use this opportunity to create a positive outcome by promoting policies of respect for women both within and outside of the workplace.”