Domestic Violence and the NFL: Tackling the Problem

Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson flashes a peace sign during a game. Wilson recently launched his "Pass the Peace" campaign to help end domestic violence. His efforts impressed guest blogger Emma Lytle. Image from <a href="" target="_blank">Russell Wilson's Facebook page</a>.
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson flashes a peace sign during a game. Wilson recently launched his "Pass the Peace" campaign to help end domestic violence. His efforts impressed guest blogger Emma Lytle. Image from Russell Wilson's Facebook page.

Written by Emma Lytle, Seattle University senior strategic communications major and project assistant, Seattle University’s Project on Family Homelessness

Note: This is the second of a two-part series on domestic violence and the NFL. In Part One, Emma shared how this situation opened her eyes to domestic violence in our nation.

Emma and her boyfriend Ricky
Emma and her boyfriend, Ricky, both got Russell Wilson Seahawks jerseys for Christmas last year. She says she has been heartbroken lately, watching the NFL’s domestic violence problem unfold. Image courtesy of Emma Lytle.

As many of you know, the National Football League (NFL) has recently been criticized over how they handle domestic violence situations among its players. In recent months, as a woman and a huge (!) football fan, I too have been questioning their domestic violence policy. Like many others, I have been thinking that they didn’t handle the Ray Rice domestic violence case well.

While over the past few years there have been several players convicted of domestic violence, the media coverage in recent months has been really intense. It was driven by the video footage of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancée and mother of his child, Janay Palmer, in an elevator on Feb. 15. The first footage released showed him dragging her unconscious body out of the elevator. The league responded with a two-game suspension.

Months later, the footage from inside the elevator surfaced, showing him punching her in the face.

Since the video went viral, the public has expressed outrage not only over what Ray Rice did, but also the NFL’s response.

To me, it seems obvious that the initial NFL response was pretty light — and that the Ravens team definitely wanted to keep Ray Rice in the game, despite what he had done in that elevator.

Ray Rice and his wife Janay Palmer
Ray Rice and his wife Janay Palmer held a press conference in May as the media attention kept unfolding. Rice described his attack as if addressing a bad day on the field: “I failed miserably, but I wouldn’t call myself a failure because failure is not getting knocked down. It’s not getting up.” Palmer said she deeply regretted “the role I played in the incident that night.” It’s not uncommon for victims to blame themselves. Image from

This has caused many to question the timeline of events. For example, the Baltimore Ravens finally terminated Rice’s contract and banned him indefinitely from the NFL, but not till the full video of the attack came out on Sept. 8. This makes me think that the original sentence of a two-game suspension would have been thought “okay” if no one ever saw that video.

It makes me wonder if the NFL would have done anything if the video had stayed hidden, or if the public hadn’t reacted as intensely as they did.

Was their later response really just a “PR move” – the result of public pressure? And, in organizations like the NFL, is domestic violence considered inappropriate not because it harms women, but because it makes the organization look bad?

It sort of seems like that is what the NFL thinks, given how they handled the Ray Rice video.


The good news is that this incident is forcing the NFL to confront and change their domestic violence policies. For example, on Aug. 28, Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, announced a new domestic violence policy. This one is harsher: Players get a six-game suspension for the first incident, and possibly lifetime suspension for the second. In a USA Today article, an expert on domestic violence said that this could have a trickle-down effect to other sports.

Also, the National Domestic Violence Hotline has entered into a contract with the NFL in which they will receive millions of dollars over multiple years.  This means that the Hotline can hire more advocates and people to take calls. Also, because the video has been getting so much publicity, the Hotline has seen an 84 percent increase in calls. Unfortunately, because they didn’t have enough staff, they could only answer 50 percent of those calls. But soon, once their advocates are trained up, they can handle more calls.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaking to the media about Ray Rice attacking his wife. Public outcry has shaped his response to the Ray Rice incident. Image from Bleacher Report.

I am so glad that the public responded so intensely; domestic violence thrives when people don’t talk about it.

Break the silence graphic
Talking about domestic violence is an important part of ending it! Image from the wellness center at Northwest University.

I hope our society is now ready to really tackle the problem of domestic violence and sexual assault. If the recent public outrage means that people care more about domestic violence, then we are moving in the right direction!

This is good, because as I wrote in Part One of this series, one in four U.S. women experiences domestic violence.


Domestic violence is one of the bigger problems off the field throughout the NFL, according to CNN.

And, while Ray Rice may be in trouble for knocking his then-fiancée unconscious, neither Ray McDonald of the San Francisco 49ers nor, until very recently, Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers has been penalized under the revised policy.

For example, McDonald was arrested Aug. 31 on “accusation of felony domestic violence” after attacking his pregnant fiancée at a party. His girlfriend is described as having “minor” bruises on her neck and arms.

As of Oct. 13, no charges have yet been filed and he continues to play.

Greg Hardy was convicted on July 15 of threatening to kill his thengirlfriend, and of assault. According to a motion for protection his girlfriend filed earlier this year, he threw her on a pile of guns, saying that they were loaded; picked her up and threw her in the bathroom; choked her; and finally, threatened to kill her if she told anyone or reported it to the media.

Even though he had been convicted of beating his partner in the summer, he was still allowed to play in week one of the regular football season.

It wasn’t until mid-September he was pulled from playing, and placed on the exempt/commissioners permission list. Basically this means that he volunteered to not play football, but still get paid!


In the past, the public seemed to overlook instances of domestic violence among pro football players. The NFL certainly didn’t seem to care about it much. However, the Ray Rice scandal has shown how the media, particularly social media, can make an organization take responsibility for something like violence against women.

It has also caused me and others to ask, if there wasn’t a video of Rice knocking out his girlfriend, would people really have cared? Doing research for this series, I discovered that many people agree that Rice would still be playing if the video hadn’t come out.

I think the public being upset is a sign of our changing times in that anything and everything can be exposed on the Internet and through social media.

Social media can also hold powerful organizations or people accountable for their actions. For example, Ravens coach John Harbaugh, key stakeholders in the Ravens organization and the NFL leadership all had to publicly explain why they handled the Ray Rice case the way they did. Many people called for Commissioner Goodell to resign.

Ultimately, it wasn’t just coaches, staff and the NFL who used social media to talk about domestic violence and football, but domestic violence survivors as well.

Inspired by Beverly Gooden, the woman who created the #WhyIStayed hashtag (which grew to include #WhyILeft), domestic violence survivors used the #WhyIStayed/WhyILeft hashtags on Twitter to confront any confusion about why women stay with abusive partners.

These hashtagged tweets from survivors all over America inspired me to create a Storify highlighting some of them.

These tweets are powerful, but if you want a more in-depth view of domestic violence, and how it can be confusing for women, read the letter that Beverly wrote to the young woman she once was, trapped and confused by the violence in her relationship.

Beverly Gooden photo
This is the lovely and brave Beverly Gooden. Photo from Beverly’s Twitter account.

I respect these survivors for having the courage to speak out and explain to others the depth of domestic violence. I think this is so important because it is hard for people like me, who have never experienced domestic violence, to understand how it can happen.

Also, I am one of many fans who are glad to see that the NFL is finally beginning to take domestic violence seriously.

But I also understand that domestic violence can’t be solved overnight. Increasing the penalty for players who commit domestic violence to a six-game suspension is a step in the right direction, yet this policy won’t work unless it is actually used!


As part of my research, I contacted the Seahawks organization in early September to find out what they planned to do about the domestic violence situation. Their director of community relations, Mike Flood, told us that “the NFL is working with Seahawks HR [human resources] and football operations personnel to ensure players, coaches and staff understand all aspects of the problem, effects and ramifications.” I was certainly glad to hear my Seahawks are taking action.

It’s not just the front office that’s responding. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is doing his part to end domestic violence and set a good example for his teammates. He’s the first NFL player to do something really visible in the effort to end domestic violence.

Russell Wilson quote
Emma was a Seahawks fan before, but now she is really a fan. She has high hopes that Russell Wilson is able to help our society end domestic violence. Image from the Players’ Tribune Twitter account.

The Seahawks’ Number 3 recently launched his philanthropic foundation, “Why Not You.” His first initiative? A program called Pass the Peace, which asks people to donate $2 or more to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. He has made it easy by setting it up so that all that people have to do is text WNYPassThePeace to 41444.

Because the “ice bucket challenge” was so successful in raising money for ALS, he is hoping that “challenging” others to donate money for domestic violence will be successful too! The first people he challenged were Justin Timberlake and baseball legend Derek Jeter. He also challenged former Sonics player Kevin Durant of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, who passed it on to his teammate Russell Westbrook and actor Mark Walhberg, who challenged singer Drake and actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson…it goes on and on.

It all started when Russell Wilson startled the world with the admission that he was a bully in his youth, and shared his thoughts on domestic violence in the opinion piece he wrote for “The Players’ Tribune,” Derek Jeter’s new blog. I thought it was great that he said this:

I’ve tended to avoid controversial topics throughout my career, but in my first piece for The Players’ Tribune, I wanted to be open and address something that’s important, timely and relevant [domestic violence]. I’ve been silent on the issue for too long, falling back on the “I can’t speak to someone else’s personal life” excuse. But victims need physical, emotional and financial support and care, and the resources to get away from their abusers. Abusers, you need to get help — you can change.

Seeing the Seahawks step up not only on the field but off makes me proud to call myself a fan!

ermaine Kearse “passing the peace”
Russell Wilson Instagrammed this photo of Seahawks wide receiver Jermaine Kearse “passing the peace” after his touchdown in the Oct. 6 Monday Night Football game against Washington. Image from

Right now I understand that the NFL is nowhere near eliminating domestic violence in the football world. I can only hope that as time goes on they will prove that they take domestic violence seriously.

purple jersey
The YWCA is encouraging fans to “Go Purple” in October. Read more below!


  • Read the letter I referenced earlier by Beverly Gooden. It’s a powerful look into the dynamics of domestic violence.
  • Read my Storify! It was amazing to see what survivors have said about #WhyIStayed #WhyILeft.
  • If you’re a football fan like me, check out “Go Purple With YWCA Against Domestic Violence.” You can change your Facebook and Twitter image to the purple jersey with the number “1in4,” wear purple on game day and use the hashtag #GoPurpleWithYWCA.
  • Do a Google search of the domestic violence resources in your area. This may enable you to help someone in need someday. The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence is a great resource in our state.
  • Stayed tuned on the latest news in the NFL and the Seahawks. Now that Russell Wilson has launched his Pass the Peace initiative, I can’t wait to see the impact it has.  There are a lot of great sites to go to for football news: Bleacher Report, the news section on the NFL’s website, ProFootballTalk through NBC, YardBarker through FOX sports, or your team’s website—Seattle Seahawks!
  • Last but not least, TALK! Have an open conversation with other fans, your peers and your community about domestic violence. Remember, you can’t fight something no one talks about.

I started this journey without knowing anything about domestic violence. I learned so much through this experience and I think everyone else should learn a little, too! Educate yourself! Oh yeah, and of course GOOOOOOO HAWKS!

Perry Firth served as editor of this series. Watch for Perry’s reaction piece on Friday. Thanks to Haley Jo Lewis for contributing to this post.

Have you been following the NFL’s response to domestic violence among its players? What do you think about the way the league has handled these situations? Let us know by leaving a comment below!

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