Does the NFL Treat Women Worse Than Dogs?
The National Football League and its fans were outraged over Michael Vick's dogfighting. When it comes to allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault, that's often not the case.
Illustration by Katherine Killeffer
Last February, then-Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was arrested after viciously beating his now-wife, Janay Palmer, in an elevator. Four days after the arrest, video surfaced of him dragging her unconscious body outside said elevator. Through his lawyer, Rice acknowledged that it was himself and Palmer in the video.
Six weeks later, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said he would have to "let the facts dictate" whether Rice's actions should result in discipline. One day after that, Rice was indicted on assault charges; the Ravens issued a statement saying, "This is part of the due process for Ray. We know there is more to Ray Rice than this one incident." In July, the NFL finally suspended Rice—for two games. It wasn't until September, when TMZ posted video footage of Rice punching Palmer in the face repeatedly in the elevator, that he was finally cut by the Ravens. The catch? According to the Associated Press, the League and Goodell were in possession of that footage the entire time.
It's obviously not the first time an NFL player has been accused of doing something heinous off the field, but the Ray Rice incident was unique. Video evidence in a domestic violence or sexual abuse case is extremely rare: Both crimes tend to occur in homes, away from the public eye. This generally allows perpetrators to do a quick PR side-step. The footage of Rice's assault meant that the "truth"—usually impossible to uncover, as far as the League is concerned—was there to see in grisly objectivity.
A rhinestoned pink-and-white Ray Rice "women's jersey" for sale from the NFL attracted widespread derision after Rice's suspension; eventually, most of the Rice merchandise was listed as "discontinued" on the NFLshop.com store. Goodell, a man who's not had the best track record dealing with domestic violence cases, wrote in a letter to every player in the League that the NFL would strive to become "a leader in the domestic violence space," wording that he presumably regrets.
The message from the League, to many of its critics, was clear: Violence against women is unpopular enough to be bad for the brand.
If there's a player aside from Ray Rice who's become a household name for his criminal activity, it's Michael Vick. Drafted first overall out of Virginia in 2001, Vick was touted on his entry into the League as perhaps the most athletic person ever to play quarterback. In four full seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, he averaged just over 16 passing touchdowns and more than 800 yards rushing. But in 2007, Vick pled guilty to federal conspiracy charges and was sentenced to 23 months in a prison in Kansas for his operating a dogfighting ring. That gives Vick something that many football players who abuse women, rather than dogs, are able to avoid: a guilty verdict and prison sentence.
While in prison, Vick became a symbol of animal cruelty. Upon his release, he reportedly spent over $100,000 employing public relations strategists and media experts in a naked attempt to repair his image. Vick was media trained into being soft-spoken and apologetic, a skill he showed off in a now-infamous episode of 60 Minutes. Since then, he has made a genuine effort to be an advocate for dogs and against dog fighting.
After serving his time, Vick returned to the League, spending five years with the Philadelphia Eagles and one year with the New York Jets. Yet regardless of his visible attempts to show the world he had recognized his wrongs and tried to move forward, Vick's record of dog abuse has made him a pariah: A petition was circulated at the start of the 2014 NFL season asking the Jets to ban him from training camp, and, when Nike re-signed him to a sponsorship deal in March 2014, detractors boycotted Nike as well as the Jets.
Dog rescue advocates created a documentary, The Champions, which follows the dogs Vick had trained to fight as they're rehabilitated. The film's longline reads, "All the odds were stacked against the pit bulls rescued from NFL star quarterback Michael Vick's notorious dog fighting right. Forced to fight for their lives, they were considered so dangerous both PETA and the Humane Society of the United States wanted them euthanized. But no one could have predicted how the dogs would change the lives of those who risked everything to save them." It is screening at film festivals this year.
When Vick was signed as a free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers before this season, some Steelers fans were outraged. A petition calling on fans to "Say NO to Michael Vick on the Pittsburgh Steelers team" was circulated online, collecting over 34,000 signatures and making headlines. The petition states: "Michael Vick is a convicted felon and no-class piece of crap. He is also a terrible QB, which is why he has no team. Let's unite as Steelers fans - as NFL fans - and stop him from playing on our team! Steelers fans united! Sign to keep Vick from ever wearing the coveted Steelers uniform!!"
Ben Roethlisberger is the Steelers' starting quarterback and the man Vick had been signed to back up. The team's first round pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, Roethlisberger has both two Super Bowl wins and two rape accusations under his belt. The first accusation was made in a 2009 civil suit that was settled out of court (the alleged victim in that case did not file a complaint with police). In the second, the alleged victim filed a police report in March of 2010. She later asked the district attorney not to prosecute; in a letter later released by her lawyer, Roethlisberger's accuser affirmed that she was not recanting her allegations but rather seeking to avoid "the extraordinary media coverage that would be inevitable." (The DA said in a press conference that he would not have prosecuted regardless of whether the alleged victim wrote the letter, since there was not enough evidence to do so.) Now Roethlisberger is married with young children, and the allegations against him are mostly forgotten. Like Vick, Roethlisberger was endorsed by Nike at the time the allegations came out against him. Unlike Vick, Nike did not drop him from their "roster of athletes."
Here's what was alleged in that second case: An unnamed woman (we'll call her Jane Doe) claimed that on the night of March 4, 2010, Roethlisberger raped her in a bathroom in the back of a Georgia nightclub. According to her written police report, which was corroborated by three of her friends, a man described as Roethlisberger's bodyguard pulled Jane into a side room, one that Roethlisberger entered a few minutes later.
Jane's friend, Ann Marie, wrote in her account that she immediately recognized this as a dangerous situation, given the Jane's level of intoxication. Ann Marie claimed that she approached the bodyguard, saying, "This isn't right. My friend is back there with Ben. She needs to come back right now."
Another friend of Jane's, Aliesha, said she attempted to get into that room, only to be kicked out by one of Ben's bodyguards. Yet another friend, Nicole, alleged that she tried to speak with the bar's owner, a man named Rocky. Nicole's police statement says, "I told Rocky that [Jane] was too drunk to be back there, and he told me not to worry because Ben would not do anything to ruin his reputation."
In a handwritten police report, Jane Doe described what happened while she was in the back room her friends were barred from entering:
Ben came back with his penis out of his pants. I told him it wasn't OK, no, we don't need to do this and I proceeded to get up and try to leave. I went to the first door I saw, which happened to be a bathroom. He followed me into the bathroom and shut the door behind him. I still said no, this is not OK, and then he had sex with me. He said it was OK. He then left without saying anything. I went out of the hallway/door to the side where I saw my friends.
After leaving Capital City, according to Jane Doe's police report, the girls immediately approached the first cop car they saw on the street. As luck would have it, a police officer—a football fan who'd apparently persuaded Roethlisberger to take selfies with him earlier that same day—was the cop they found.
In his report, the officer seems to discredit Jane Doe's account:
She advised me that while in Capitol City (the club), she was sexually assaulted or sexually manipulated by the suspect around 1 30 hours. She also stated that one of the suspect's bodyguards escorted her to the back room/hallway area where the suspect was. Once there she stated the suspect asked her for sex. At this time it is unclear to what happened after this point due to the complainant's recollection being foggy from to [sic] her intoxication. However she did write a statement of what she thought happened...
After taking Jane's statement, the officer went straight to Roethlisberger's party to let them know what was going on. He told Roethlisberger and his entourage about the accusations in vulgar and dismissive terms. Anthony J. Barravecchio, an off-duty police officer traveling with Roethlisberger's entourage, reported that the officer said something along the lines of, "We have a problem. This drunken bitch, drunk off her ass, is accusing Ben of rape. This pisses me off. Women can't do this. It's bullshit, but we've got to do this, we've got to do a report. This is BS. She's making shit up." (The officer later resigned from the force.)
Despite cries for the NFL or his team to suspend him before the charges were dropped—which generally tend to come from journalists, rather than the groundswell of fan outrage that met Vick—this marks Ben Roethlisberger's 12th consecutive season with the Steelers. Meanwhile, when Michael Vick's dogfighting investigation came to light, the League suspended him indefinitely without pay for violating its Personal Conduct Policy. (Goodell told Vick in a letter that his conduct was "not only illegal but also cruel and reprehensible.")
As far as the NFL is concerned, it seems, a dropped charge or an accusation is good enough for a player to stay in the League. As branding strategist and crisis communications expert Adam Hanft told USA Today: "The real issue is whether [NFL culture says to its players], 'We're not going to look too hard on this,' or, 'We'll look the other way or leave it to the authorities. You are going to have to deal with the legal consequences of it but don't expect to see us piling on.'" This type of attitude is arguably why NFL players like Greg Hardy and C.J. Spillman are able return to the their teams while under investigation for domestic violence or sexual assault, while Vick was banned from training camp while under investigation for dogfighting.
The real issue is whether [NFL culture says to its players], 'We're not going to look too hard on this,' or, 'We'll look the other way or leave it to the authorities.
In a phone interview, famous civil rights attorney Gloria Allred put it more bluntly. "In the Ray Rice case they only appeared to do [something meaningful] because there was a video," she said. "In most cases there's not going to be a video of a rape. Or of domestic violence," she said, "so they have launched a big public relations campaign and they have amended their Personal Conduct Policy. But having said that, I don't have confidence that they really have done anything meaningful except, from their point of view, really trying to tamp down public outrage by launching a public relations campaign."
Before all the public outrage over the NFL's sexual assault policy, it was rare to see an athlete face consequences for rape. In their 1998 book, Pros and Cons, Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger explored the League's violence against women problem in depth. After extensively poring over case studies, the authors to concluded at the time that professional athletes were "immune to prosecution for rape," and they noted that juries "usually give the benefit of the doubt to the athlete." The NFL itself, in the authors' estimation, treated sexual violence as basically a non-issue. As of 1998, the NFL had "never suspended even one of the many players who have beaten their wives or girlfriends."
Of course, that's not the case anymore. A new personal conduct policy implemented last year calls for punishments for domestic violence: a six-game suspension for a first offense and a lifetime ban from the League for a second. (The League told ESPN that, according to the new mandatory policy, disciplinary action will be implemented once a player's case is adjudicated, meaning the players will be in the clear until there is a conviction or plea agreement. Some teams choose to suspend players in the midst of allegations, however.)
I don't have confidence that [the NFL] really has done anything meaningful except, from their point of view, really trying to tamp down public outrage.
Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy was suspended for four games this summer after he was accused of strangling his then-girlfriend, Nicole Holder, and "slamming" her onto a futon couch covered in assault weapons. He was convicted of the assault last year, but the conviction was overturned on appeal after Holder couldn't be located to testify. The charges were later expunged. Despite Hardy's domestic violence charges and other explosively violent behavior, Cowboy's millionaire owner Jerry Jones has only positive things to say of the star. "He's, of course, one of the real leaders on this team and he earns it," said Jones. "He earns it with respect from all of his teammates, and that's the kind of thing that inspires a football team."
Several weeks ago, a Deadspin investigative report compiled the extensive evidence against Hardy; in the article, graphic police photos of Holder's bruised and battered body appear alongside never-before-seen interviews with detectives, police statements, and 911 call transcripts. A friend of Holder's who was a witness to the assault told police, "If she ever did anything to damage his career he would kill her." In a later interview with a Detective Faye Strother, Holder says at the time of the assault, she was thinking "He was gonna kill me, this is it...this is the time. He's actually gonna do it."
In response to the story, Jones stood by his man, stating, "We entered into the agreement with Greg fully understanding that there would be scrutiny and criticism. We have given Greg a second chance. He is a member of our team and someone who is grateful for the opportunity he has been given to move forward with his life and his career." It's important to note that, while the Cowboys team was not privy to the photos before signing Hardy, they were aware of them. Commissioner Goodell, on the other hand, has been in possession of the photos since before Hardy's suspension in April.
After Michael Vick's free fall from grace (his dogfighting conviction cost him a $130 million dollar contract—the highest of any player in the league—as well as major endorsement deals and his credit score), John P. Goodwin, manager of animal fighting issues for the Humane Society, told the New York Times: "I think the judge sent a strong message to dogfighters that this is a dead-end activity, and for professional athletes, it's a career-killer." If only the same could be said for violence against women.
On March 23 2014, Darren Sharper, a former NFL safety, accepted simultaneous plea deals in two rape cases: a guilty plea to an assault charge in Arizona, and no-contest in a California case in which he was accused of drugging and raping two women. The next day, Sharper pleaded guilty in Las Vegas to one felony charge of attempted sexual assault. He had previously been charged in Nevada with two counts of felony sexual assault. Sharper was also being investigated for his role in a rape case in New Orleans, where he was charged with aggravated assault against three women in 2013. At least nine women across four states have accused Sharper of drugging and raping them since his retirement from the NFL in 2011.
Sharper had a 14-year career in the League, in which he was named All-Pro six times. He played with three NFL teams: the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, and New Orleans Saints, with whom he won the 2010 Super Bowl. After his retirement, Sharper was briefly an on-air analyst with for the NFL (he was fired as rape allegations came to light). He is 39 years old.
On Monday, June 13, 2015, Sharper plead guilty to two counts of forcible rape and one count of simple rape in a Louisiana state court in New Orleans, completing a series of pleas that will see him serve at least nine years in prison for drugging and sexually assaulting women. This was the final step in a "global plea deal," in which Sharper agreed to consolidate the charges against him, presumably because with so many accusations across so many states it was getting too confusing.
Despite his nine-year prison sentence, Sharper may end up in the NFL Hall of Fame. This isn't some technicality; on the contrary, it's a hot debate in NFL world. Some commentators, like Peter King of Sports Illustrated argue that rape can't count against Hall of Fame nominees; King, in particular, tweeted, "The bylaws of the Pro Football Hall of Fame forbid the 46 voters from considering players' off-field lives" and "If I said, 'I will not consider Sharper for induction because he has been accused of multiple rapes,' I would resign from the committee."
I have no confidence in the NFL that they will do the right thing unless there is public pressure for them to do the right thing.
Gloria Allred has worked on her fair share of rape cases against NFL players. "I have no confidence in the NFL at this point," she said. "I have spent a great deal of time with the NFL investigators, and all I can say is I have no confidence in the NFL that they will do the right thing unless there is public pressure for them to do the right thing."
Last year, Allred acted as an alleged victim's representative in a case against Dallas Cowboys safety C.J. Spillman, in which a woman accused Spillman of sexually assaulting her at the Cowboys' hotel in Texas on September 20, 2014. The case is currently ongoing. Spillman played with the Cowboys the next day in Saint Louis. Allred was brought on to represent the plaintiff; she says she sent a letter to Roger Goodell informing him of the charges and police report on September 26. Spillman played with the Cowboys at home against the Saints on September 28.
Ironically, it was on September 19—just one day before the alleged rape—that Goodell had called a 45-minute press conference in New York to promise the League would be implementing a new personal conduct policy and to reiterate that he's sorry about that whole Ray Rice thing.
Allred issued a statement after Spillman was indicted on a sexual assault charge this June, nearly a year after the police report was filed, chastising Commissioner Goodell for his long inaction. "Despite the fact that on September 26, 2014, I delivered a letter to Commissioner Goodell's office advising him of the police report alleging rape made to the Texas police on September 20, 2014, and despite the fact that after that I spent countless hours both in New York and California with NFL investigators who were investigating allegations against Mr. Spillman, the NFL appeared to do nothing and never informed me that they would take any action or impose any discipline at all against Mr. Spillman," she wrote. Spillman is currently an unsigned free agent.
Unfortunately, winning seems to be far more important to the NFL than taking appropriate action for alleged victims of NFL players.
"It took the courage of my client, a very brave young woman, to take action in the justice system," Allred added. "Clearly there is no justice in the NFL system for alleged victims of NFL players. Unfortunately, winning seems to be far more important to the NFL than taking appropriate action for alleged victims of NFL players."
Allred, who said she consults with a lot of alleged victims of NFL players, told me that she has little faith in the League's ability to change. "Given my experience with the NFL and what they've failed to do, in general I would not be inclined to invest much time cooperating with the NFL or having my clients speak to the NFL. Because I think it's just a waste of time," Allred said. "And it's a disappointment to my clients, because [the NFL's] deeds have not matched their words. That's my feeling. I haven't said it before. I'm now saying it to you."
I ask Ms. Allred if she thinks it's worthwhile for a plaintiff to take a meeting with the NFL. "They've reached out and had sit-downs with my clients," she says. "You'd have to ask the NFL what they've done. Or failed to do. You ask them. See if they'll give you any kind of answer at all, besides 'no comment.'"
The NFL did not respond to requests to comment for this story.