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The NFL's response to domestic violence and sexual assault

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  • By NFL.com NFL.com
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In the late summer of 2014, the issue of domestic violence became a public focus among NFL fans and the media due to some high-profile cases involving NFL players. Since then, Commissioner Goodell and his team have worked hard to learn as much as they can about these issues and how best to address them.

Though no one can prevent these terrible crimes from being committed, the NFL can move forward to help those in its vast network of players, coaches, staff and their families who may need it and take steps towards preventing domestic violence and sexual assault before they happen.

This article is intended to provide both information and transparency as the league continues on what will be a very long journey towards making a real impact - inside and outside the NFL. Below is an outline of the league's work-to-date.

Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault: Equal Opportunity Problems

Domestic violence and sexual assault know no boundaries - not socio-economic, racial, religious, gender, age, sexual orientation or education. These issues affect every community across the nation. No one is immune.

Yet despite the astounding prevalence - 1 in 4 U.S. women and 1 in 7 men (aged 18 and older) have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, and 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys being sexually abused before the age of 18 - domestic violence and sexual assault remain hidden and often misunderstood.

When faced with these issues in the summer of 2014, it quickly became clear that the NFL needed to know and do more.

Taking a strategic but urgent approach, Commissioner Goodell and his team began meeting with and talking to as many experts, advocates, academics, law enforcement professionals and others as possible (more than 150 in all), seeking out many different points of view and putting together its own group of advisors.

The goals:
- Learn how to get help for those within the NFL (players, coaches, staff and their families) who are impacted by domestic violence and sexual assault and help to prevent it going forward;
- Use the NFL platform to work towards changing long-standing social norms that include shame, blame and a general unwillingness on the part of many to discuss these issues out in the open.
- Help fill gaps in service that resulted directly from the high-profile nature of the domestic violence cases being dealt with in the NFL.
The information that follows gives a good sense of what the league has done thus far and where it plans to go in the future (long-term plans are still being determined).

Addressing Social Issues Inside the NFL: Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, Child Abuse, Driving Under the Influence

Ongoing Education Between October and December 2014, nearly every man and woman in the NFL, including some family members (more than 6,000 in all), participated in broad-based domestic violence (DV), child abuse (CA), and sexual assault (SA) education. Mandatory for all league and club office personnel, owners, cheerleaders, coaches, and players and available to and highly encouraged for friends, family members, and loved ones, the education sessions were conducted in person at all 32 clubs and all league offices except China and Mexico. For those remote offices, new hires, and staff who were not present at the live sessions, an online version of the presentation is available and mandatory. Members of the public can also view it here.

The initial education sessions were intended to help attendees not only understand the scope of behavior that constitutes domestic violence and sexual assault, but also the warning signs associated with these issues. Bystander intervention -- how everyone can be part of addressing and therefore helping prevent this violence -- was another very important focus area of the education.

The second round of league-wide education launched in July 2015, with players and football personnel attending sessions during Training Camp, and club and league personnel scheduling their sessions for this fall. Building on the 2014 sessions, the presentations are intended interactive and thought-provoking, using video testimonials to stimulate discussion. In their own words, a sexual assault survivor, a domestic violence survivor and a perpetrator of verbal abuse share their experiences, the impact not only on them but also on those around them, and how others either helped or could have helped them. In the room, attendees receive a quick refresher on each issue and then talk about warning signs and ways that bystanders can safely intervene.

Evolving to include other issues the NFL faces, the 2015 education sessions also address Driving Under the Influence (DUI). Here too, first person videos are used, though in this case both are members of the NFL family -- current Tennessee Titans player Delanie Walker, whose aunt and uncle were killed by a drunk driver in 2013, and former player Donte Stallworth, who killed a man while driving under the influence in 2009. The result is a powerful message of accountability and responsibility for preventing what is a completely avoidable tragedy from occurring.

Individual Support

Critical Response Teams. To ensure it is ready to assist when called, the league has specially trained more than 200 league and club leaders to provide immediate and confidential crisis assistance -- safety, medical, social services, and legal -- to anyone in the NFL family, including spouses, significant others, or other family members who experience abuse. The league's Critical Response Team (CRT) has been in place since late 2014, with CRTs planned for all 32 clubs by the end of 2015.

Updated Personal Conduct Policy. In consultation with leading experts throughout the country, the NFL has overhauled its approach to discipline and accountability for employees and players, both on and off the field. The new set of rules and processes are tough, fair, clear and consistent governing player conduct and discipline.

The revised policy lays out a clear series of steps to be taken when there is an incident that requires review. New measures include:
- Additional NFL-funded counseling and services for victims, families, and violators.
- A more extensive list of prohibited conduct.
- Independent investigative procedures.
- Specific criteria for paid leave for an individual formally charged with a crime of violence, including domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse.
- An expert group of outside advisors to review and evaluate potential violations and consult on other elements of the policy.
- A baseline suspension of six games without pay for violations involving assault, battery, domestic violence, dating violence, child abuse, other forms of family violence, or sexual assault, with consideration given to possible mitigating or aggravating circumstances.

Also included in the Policy is the appointment by Commissioner Goodell of a new league Conduct Committee comprised of representatives of NFL ownership that will review the policy at least annually and recommend appropriate changes with advice from outside experts. The committee will ensure that the policy remains current and consistent with best practices and evolving legal and social standards. Members of the committee are Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill (committee chair), Falcons owner Arthur Blank, Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, Dee Haslam (wife of Browns owner Jimmy Haslam), Cowboys Executive Vice President and chair of The NFL Foundation Charlotte Jones Anderson, Bears owner George McCaskey, Texans owner Robert McNair, and two former NFL players that are part of NFL ownership, Warrick Dunn (Falcons) and John Stallworth (Steelers).

The commissioner also appointed two individuals to oversee investigations and conduct. Lisa Friel, a former New York District Attorney’s office sex crimes prosecutor will oversee investigations as Special Counsel for Investigations and B. Todd Jones, the former head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives, was named Special Counsel for Conduct. These individuals will manage the NFL's investigatory procedures and determine discipline for violations of the Personal Conduct Policy. For players, this is consistent with past practice under the CBA, in which a member of the Commissioner's staff has generally issued discipline for off-field misconduct.

Subject matter experts will continue to advise the newly established Conduct Committee to ensure that the right voices are to be at the table to inform both educational and disciplinary work going forward.

A complete outline of the new Personal Conduct Policy can be found here and here.

Addressing Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in the Community

The NFL is also committed to using its platform to address domestic violence and sexual assault in society at large.

Supporting Leading Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Groups. The intense scrutiny of the NFL and the domestic violence/sexual assault issues it faced caused a dramatic increase in calls to national and local organizations working every day to support those in need. This increased outreach resulted in an increase, too, in the number of calls and texts that went unanswered. To help rectify that situation, the NFL made a multi-year, multi-million dollar commitment to help reduce the incidence of DV/SA, increase services for victims and families, elevate the profile of sexual violence prevention and streamline access to resources. This includes multi-year partnerships with and support for the National Domestic Violence Hotline (NDVH) and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC). This financial support helped NDVH to add staff to answer more calls and open an office in Washington, DC to assist with policy work. The NSVRC is using the funding to provide resources to state sexual assault coalitions to assist with local hotline volume. It is also working to elevate awareness and improve understanding of the complexities surrounding sexual assault, and how it can be prevented. NSVRC, too, will be opening a Washington, DC office to work on policy issues.

Beyond the league, all 32 NFL clubs are working with local domestic violence and sexual assault organizations (more than 75 in total) on activities ranging from abuse intervention programs, crisis center fundraisers, high school healthy relationship assemblies, and local public service campaigns.

Driving the Conversation Around Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. In collaboration with the NO MORE campaign and the Joyful Heart Foundation, the NFL is working to urge a national conversation on these pressing issues. Beginning in late September 2014, PSAs aired during nearly every game broadcast, including a new PSA featuring current and former NFL players. This marked the first time these issues had been raised and discussed during such a high-profile sporting event, disrupting the norm and sparking dialogue amongst fans and others. In an unprecedented move, the NFL also aired a DV/SA PSA during the Super Bowl – an ad that, in addition to the millions of viewers of the game, garnered more than 7 million views online. The PSAs can be viewed and shared at www.nomore.org.

Promoting Programs that Develop the Character of Young People. The NFL is expanding its awareness and educational efforts -- including developing age-appropriate character development, healthy relationship education and programming on dating/domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault -- to those who play, coach, or manage the game (and other sports) in college, high school, and youth football programs. In mid-November 2014, the league released "A Call to Coaches," a 17-minute video for high school, college and recreational coaches talking about respect, relationships and the role models that athletes can be. In addition to that outreach, the NFL is working on a statewide pilot program, currently underway in Texas and Colorado, to increase the reach and scale of character curriculum nationwide, focusing on high school coaches of all sports. In another initiative, select high schools that count Super Bowl alumni as graduates have been added to the Super Bowl High School Honor Roll and provided a special character- education curriculum.

On the philanthropic side, the NFL Foundation is also focusing on the development of character education programs that will reach youth footballs players, as well as girls and boys, athletes and non-athletes alike. For example, the NFL hosted a summit for more than 50 high school football coaches from around the country, including several former NFL players currently coaching high school football, in Orlando, Florida during the Pop Warner Super Bowl. This interactive event focused on the character development of high school football players and provided the NFL with an opportunity to hear directly from the coaches about the challenges they face on the ground each day. The Summit, which will be repeated in other locations throughout 2015 and 2016, also featured top experts in the field who helped motivate and educate these coaches and can provide important resources as well. Representatives from USA Football were also in attendance as part of the NFL’s ongoing partnership with them to help promote a better, safer game and provide coaches and players with opportunities to develop to their fullest potential off the field.

Together these initiatives have the potential to make a huge impact. But a year into this effort, it is still just a start.

The NFL has much to do inside the league and beyond to make real change in our society. But with the commitment, the drive, the right people in place and the support and participation of the full NFL family, fans and society-at-large, the league hopes that this year may mark the beginning of the end of domestic violence and sexual assault...once and for all.

For more information, click here.

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