Roger Goodell and his mishandling of domestic violence

Cheryl says she felt an urgent responsibility to speak out after a woman told police in Grapevine, Tex., that the Cowboys’ C.J. Spillman had sexually assaulted her on Sept. 20, 2014 — just one day after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged at a New York press conference that the league had badly fumbled its Ray Rice investigation and mishandled rape and domestic violence cases.

Cheryl, who asked the Daily News not to publish her last name, says Spillman tried to rape her, too, after she gave him a sports massage several months earlier at her Santa Clara, Calif., studio. After prosecutors declined to file criminal charges against Spillman, Cheryl vowed she would do everything she could to make sure the special teams player would never again get away with attacking another woman. When former Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor Lisa Friel, hired by Goodell to advise the NFL on how to investigate and discipline players accused of domestic and sexual violence, launched an investigation into Spillman, Cheryl agreed to cooperate.

Cheryl says Friel, now the league’s senior vice president for investigations, flew to California in the autumn of 2014 and questioned her for five hours about Spillman and the assault. Friel also interviewed six or seven of Cheryl’s relatives and friends. But it has been radio silence ever since: Cheryl says she hasn’t heard from Friel or anybody else from the NFL since the sit-down and she now believes the Friel investigation was nothing more than a public relations stunt conducted by a league under fire for its callous and clueless response to violence against women.

“It was all a bunch of BS,” Cheryl says. “The NFL hired this lady with good credentials because it made the league look like it was on the side of women. But I was never told the results of her investigation. Lisa Friel said she was preparing a report but I’ve never seen it. I’d still like to see it.”

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Advocates for domestic violence and rape victims who work with the NFL say much has changed since Goodell faced one of the biggest crises of his 10-year tenure as commissioner in 2014, when the league’s tepid response to videos that showed Rice slugging his fiancée and dragging her limp body out of an Atlantic City casino elevator outraged fans, sponsors and the media. League insiders and victim advocates say Goodell was stung by the public anger sparked by the lenient punishments given to the Ravens star — originally suspended for just two games for the knock-out punch — and other players accused of assaulting women and children.

The commissioner and other NFL executives responded to the criticism by making a deep commitment to understanding the often-complicated issues raised by violence against women. The league also poured manpower and millions of dollars into programs to combat violence against women not only in its own ranks but across the United States as well.

“The NFL’s support has been a game-changer for us,” says Katie Ray-Jones of the National Domestic Violence Hotline, who says her staff was able to counsel and support 93,000 more victims in 2015 than the previous year after Goodell committed $5 million a year for five years to the organization.

C.J. Spillman was sentenced to five years in prison for sexual assault.

C.J. Spillman was sentenced to five years in prison for sexual assault.

(AP)

Anna Isaacson, the NFL vice president of social responsibility, says the Ray Rice scandal convinced Goodell that the league should use its cultural and economic clout to shed light on domestic violence and sexual assault. “I think our commitment has been strong and real and deep,” she says.

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But as Cheryl’s case illustrates, the NFL still doesn’t get it right when it comes to the details of individual cases. Rape counselors say it is important for victims to know their allegations have been investigated and their assailants have been held accountable. It’s also important to provide support and resources to victims recovering from traumatic experiences. Friel and the NFL, says Cheryl’s attorney Gloria Allred, failed her client on both counts.

“I’m very unlikely to recommend to any accuser I represent in future allegations against an NFL player that she cooperate with the NFL,” says the California civil rights lawyer, who also represented Spillman’s Grapevine accuser. “It’s not just a waste of time. It’s participating in a sham. It’s making the victim relive the trauma all over again.”

The NFL still won’t comment on the Spillman case, even though the player was sentenced to five years in prison in June after he was convicted in the Grapevine sexual assault. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy declined comment when asked why Friel or her staff has not spoken to Cheryl or Allred since that five-hour interview in 2014.

“I do think they have tried to do better,” says Ruth Glenn, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “But it takes time to see positive results and I think the NFL is still grappling with all of these issues.”

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Ray Rice's domestic violence case took the nation by storm after he was handed a lenient punishment.

Ray Rice’s domestic violence case took the nation by storm after he was handed a lenient punishment.

(Vernon Ogrodnek/AP)

Roger Goodell spent much of 2014 on the ropes thanks to the NFL’s inept Ray Rice investigation. Fans and sponsors were shocked when TMZ posted a video in February 2014 that showed Rice dragging his now-wife Janay Palmer’s limp body from an elevator, and they were furious when Goodell — acting as the league’s judge, jury and executioner — suspended the Baltimore running back for just two games.

That fury turned into a fireball on Sept. 8, 2014, when TMZ posted a video that showed Rice punching Palmer in the face, knocking her unconscious. The National Organization for Women, among others, called for Goodell to resign. The anti-sexism group UltraViolet flew banners that said “#Goodell Must Go” over MetLife Stadium and other NFL venues.

Goodell didn’t say anything about the second video for 10 days and when he finally did break his silence at his Sept. 19, 2014 press conference in a Midtown hotel, it was an absolute disaster. Goodell promised to crack down on NFL thugs and vowed to do better in the future. But he dodged numerous questions, refusing to explain, for example, why TMZ could obtain video of Rice’s knock-out punch while the NFL — with all its resources and money — could not. Even more disturbing, he failed to apologize to the women and children who had been battered by NFL stars.

Those stars included the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson, the league’s 2012 most valuable player who was indicted by a Texas grand jury of whipping his 4-year-old son with a tree branch. Peterson pleaded no contest to reckless assault of a child, a misdemeanor. Initially deactivated for just one game by Minnesota, he was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list and missed 15 games in 2014.

Then there was Greg Hardy, the Panthers defensive end who was arrested for allegedly beating his ex-girlfriend. Hardy was found guilty of assault, but the charges were dropped when he appealed and the victim failed to appear in court to testify. Hardy was also placed on the commissioner’s exempt list in 2014, missing 15 games before he was signed by Jerry Jones to play for the Cowboys the following season.

Goodell let an opportunity to make a powerful statement slip away less than 24 hours later, when the woman in Grapevine told police that Spillman had sexually assaulted her that morning in the Cowboys’ team hotel. Despite the police report, Spillman was allowed to travel with the team to St. Louis and play in a game against the Rams the next day. The NFL’s McCarthy declined comment when asked why Spillman was allowed to stay with the team that weekend — and throughout the 2014 season.

Video of Rice assaulting his then-fiancee led to an indefinite supsension from the NFL.

Video of Rice assaulting his then-fiancee led to an indefinite supsension from the NFL.

(New York Daily News)

But while the press conference was a disaster, Goodell had already begun taking steps he believed would improve the way the NFL addresses rape and domestic violence. Friel and other authorities were hired to advise the commissioner on how to handle allegations of violence against women. Isaacson, formerly the league’s veep for community affairs, assumed a new title and new responsibilities. The commissioner also began the process of beefing up the league’s Personal Conduct Policy, which was approved by the owners in December 2014 and now calls for a six-game “baseline” suspension for players accused of domestic violence, although the policy still allows Goodell to add or subtract games based on the circumstances of each case, such as guns or a previous history of violence.

Goodell, Isaacson and other NFL executives spent the next several weeks in late 2014 traveling around the country on what Isaacson calls a “listening tour,” meeting with more than 150 law-enforcement officials, victim advocates, academics and other experts. Goodell was “physically moved to tears,” according to Ray-Jones, by the stories he heard from staffers at the Hotline’s Austin headquarters.

“We listened, we heard, and we decided that there were some real impactful things that we could do,” Isaacson says.

“I think what we realized is that these were topics you kind of heard about, but you just didn’t understand them,” she adds. “We just didn’t understand them. What we found is that we weren’t alone in not understanding them, that the vast majority of society had difficulty in understanding them.”

The league sought to change all that by creating a 40-minute video presentation that showed the impact of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse on victims, families and perpetrators. Every person employed by the NFL and its teams — 6,000 players, coaches, front-office personnel and owners — were required to watch it. The presentation has been shared with scores of schools and youth football programs around the country.

“You can’t expect to make change if you don’t understand the topics, and we don’t recognize the signs and the symptoms, and we don’t know how to take action,” Isaacson says.

Goodell stayed silent for 10 days after the Rice video surfaced.

Goodell stayed silent for 10 days after the Rice video surfaced.

The NFL created “critical response teams” that would provide assistance to NFL players, employees, spouses and significant others in abusive relationships. It teamed up with NO MORE and the Joyful Heart Foundation, anti-domestic violence and sexual assault organizations, to launch campaigns to raise awareness of domestic violence and sexual assault issues, and it donated television airtime for public service announcements, including powerful commercials that aired during the past two Super Bowls.

Last year, the NFL also contributed almost $2 million for “RALIANCE,” a partnership between the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and other organizations that ambitiously — and probably unrealistically — aims to end sexual violence in a generation. Says Isaacson, “They really said to us, ‘We can end sexual violence in a generation. We know it sounds tough, but we believe if we get all the right partners in the room together, we get everybody focused finally on the same page moving this forward, we can do this.’ And we believe them.”

“It’s really meant to unify the sexual violence community in a way they’ve never been unified before,” Isaacson says.

The NFL’s 32 clubs are also working with victim advocates in their communities, too.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of organizations that are working on the ground to do this work and they have tons of unsung heroes working in those offices that are taking phone calls, and are advocating on behalf of local folks who don’t have resources,” Isaacson says. “We’ve been talking to our clubs about really focusing on the local organizations that they partner with and the league focusing on national organizations. This way we can really blanket the country with support.”

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Greg Hardy missed 15 games for his domestic violence incident before signing with the Cowboys.

Greg Hardy missed 15 games for his domestic violence incident before signing with the Cowboys.

(Police Photo)

Despite an abundance of money and good intentions, Goodell and the NFL have found it is easier to talk about cracking down on domestic violence and sexual abuse than actually doing it. Look at the way the commissioner disciplined Giants kicker Josh Brown, who was suspended for just one game last month after his ex-wife accused him of domestic violence last year. Brown was arrested but not charged by police in Washington state in 2015; his then-wife Molly Brown told the cops that her husband had been physically violent with her more than 20 times.

It’s not just the length of the suspension that concerns victim advocates, it’s the way the NFL explained it. The league said in a statement that Brown’s punishment was far below the six-game baseline in part because Molly Brown declined to cooperate with its investigators.

Advocates for domestic violence victims say it is not unusual for women who have been assaulted by spouses to refuse to speak to law-enforcement officials. Victims often have strong feelings for their partners and they fear cooperating with police will jeopardize their spouses’ careers and livelihoods. Some may be financially dependent on their abusers. Some may fear their families will be torn apart if they prosecute their abusers. Some may just be frightened.

“I understand that the fact that Josh Brown’s wife won’t talk makes it difficult to investigate,” says Glenn of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “But I wish they had not said that.”

Brown isn’t the only NFL player to get off easy despite Goodell’s tough talk. Lions tight end Andrew Quarless, who fired a gun in the air during a 2015 confrontation with a group of women in Miami Beach, was suspended for the first two games of the season. Washington’s Junior Galette was suspended for just two games last season over a domestic violence arrest.

When it comes to the NFL, some victims may decide it is simply not worth cooperating with the NFL.

“The victims don’t cooperate because they believe the NFL is not concerned with their interests,” says Katherine Redmond Brown, the founder of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes.

That is a self-inflicted wound, says sports attorney Jay Reisinger, who has represented numerous NFL players in arbitration cases. Goodell’s insistence on serving as judge, jury and executioner — rather than appointing an independent arbitrator with the NFL Players Association to handle discipline — fuels those kinds of suspicions. “The problem that you have, when you don’t have an independent arbitrator deciding these cases, is that you are more prone to disparate results and you can’t lay it off on the arbitrator.

“It highlights what really is a broken bargaining relationship between the NFLPA and the NFL,” Reisinger added. “In my view, the NFL would be better served to work more closely with the NFLPA and strengthen the bargaining relationship as opposed to carrying the big stick and using the bully pulpit.”

There are plenty of things out of the NFL’s control, too, that make it difficult to pursue an effective and consistent approach to domestic violence and sexual assault. League investigators, unlike prosecutors, can’t issue subpoenas to force witnesses to speak or produce evidence.

Isaacson acknowledges the NFL still has work to do when it comes to domestic violence and sexual assault, but the commitment to change is real, she says.

“We’re in this for the long term,” Isaacson says. “I think that we have tried to show that over the last two years with some of the programs that we’ve funded, the relationships that we’ve established and our ongoing support of these issues.”

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Source: NY Daily News Headlines Sports News

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