On February 2nd, nearly one hundred million Americans took part in the ultimate American tradition: watching the nearly four-hour entertainment phenomenon dubbed the Super Bowl. In a segmented entertainment culture where individuals choose from an ever-expanding array of options, the Super Bowl is arguably the last remaining event that unites the nation. The National Football League is the most popular and profitable sports league in the United States and is showing no signs of slowing down. In the last year, television ratings rose 5%, the league accounted for forty-seven of the fifty most-watched shows on television, and the NFL generated an astounding $15 billion in revenue. This growth has remained steady, even in the wake of turmoil away from the field.

A widely publicized domestic violence incident in 2014 involving former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, a 2013 Super Bowl champion, prompted the NFL to institute a new domestic violence policy. Commissioner Roger Goodell originally suspended Rice two games for his conduct, but after public backlash, Goodell instituted a new personal conduct policy that would apply to future acts of domestic violence. Enacted in 2014, this policy includes education and prevention resources to the players on the front end, establishment of an investigative team, and enhanced punishments of a six-game suspension for the first incident and a lifetime ban for any additional incident.

Since the policy went into effect, several high-profile NFL players have recently been accused of committing violence against women, including Ezekiel Elliot, Antonio Brown, and Jameis Winston. The NFL has suspended ten players for six games–as outlined in the policy–but many others have been investigated by the league and received reduced penalties or no penalty at all. While the commissioner’s office has discretion in making determinations on player discipline, the league has not displayed transparency or consistency in their disciplinary decisions. Some cases have followed the NFL’s desired process for investigating a potential incident–(1) place the player on paid leave, (2) the league investigates and suggests a ruling to Commissioner Goodell, and (3) Goodell makes his ruling. Other cases have strayed far from this process, including investigations that are dropped without any explanation.

The Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs are the beneficiaries of the NFL’s inconsistent, if not relaxed, enforcement of domestic violence allegations. Two of the best, highest-paid, Chiefs players have a well-documented history of domestic violence. In 2014, both Tyreek Hill and Frank Clark were arrested and charged with domestic assault and subsequently removed from the universities that they were attending at the time. Both players have been linked to further incidents in the domestic violence arena. In 2017, Clark sent an intimidating tweet to a writer in response to the writer’s 2015 article that outlined Clark’s history with domestic violence. In 2019, Tyreek Hill was accused by his fiancée of hitting their three-year-old-son and breaking his arm. While no charges were filed, the Chiefs’ general manager was disturbed by an audio recording in which Hill appeared to threaten his fiancée, Crystal Espinal, with an act of violence when she questioned him about the incident. Hill stated, “You need to be terrified of me, too.” Espinal is the same woman that Hill admitted to assaulting in 2014 while she was pregnant with their son, and Hill’s guilty plea in 2014 resulted in three years of probation. The NFL ultimately decided against suspending Hill for any amount of time, stating that, “based on the evidence presently available,” it could not conclude that Hill violated the personal conduct policy.

In a country where a collegiate football championship can be stripped away from a team because one of the player’s parents received outside financial assistance, it is troubling that the NFL seemingly does very little to deter its Super Bowl champions from employing players who are a risk to the public. The NFL should seriously consider strengthening its transparency and consistency in these enforcement efforts to curb domestic violence. While the 2014 player conduct policy checks all of the right boxes, enforcement of the policy has been at best inconsistent, and at worst ineffective. Disciplinary investigations routinely take up to a year before a determination is made, and the NFL has no duty to inform a player about the status of its investigation.

The player conduct policy is both underinclusive and overinclusive. It acts in an underinclusive fashion when star players like Tyreek Hill, who have a documented history with domestic violence, are able to perform on the game’s biggest stage without serving any suspension for an alleged incident that was facially credible. The policy is also potentially overinclusive in that players are not given any guarantee to fair notice of the status of their trials nor for the reasoning behind a potential punishment. There is a need for transparency in these proceedings that the NFL is not meeting, and it leaves the players and the public with valid suspicions. Without access to investigatory records, including transcripts of NFL investigatory meetings, it is impossible for the public to truly know if the NFL is implementing the player conduct policy in a fair manner that has the public interest at the forefront. It is similarly plausible that the NFL is only concerned about protecting vulnerable people from acts of domestic violence committed by its players when the absence of that player would affect the league’s bottom line.

Jon Oakley


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