We’ve been here before. The names and uniform colors are different, but the facts are stunningly similar. A player accused of battering a woman, charged with assault, admonished with minimal legal consequences, disciplined by the league, and permitted back on the field–only to have visual evidence surface and create a frenzy.
In July of 2014, the original two-game suspension in the Ray Rice case exposed the NFL’s woefully inadequate policies in the area of domestic violence. But it wasn’t until September when TMZ released the video of him knocking his fiancee out cold in an elevator that massive debate ensued. Only then did league officials, Ravens’ management, coaches and players, corporate sponsors, mainstream media, and fans collectively react. Only then did the story and the fallout grip the nation and serve as a catalyst for change.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized for screwing up and promised a sense of urgency in addressing these types of cases. Rice was cut by his team and banned indefinitely from the league (a sentence later overturned in court). In the wake of national scrutiny and uproar, the Vikings put Adrian Peterson on paid leave when he faced child abuse charges. The Panthers did the same with their star defensive end while he appealed his conviction for assaulting and threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend.
Following a season on the Commissioner’s Exempt List, Greg Hardy beat the legal system when his accuser declined to go through another trial. Prosecutors couldn’t find her. Without her testimony, his conviction was vacated and his record recently expunged. But now visual evidence of Hardy’s crime is all over the internet. His ex-girlfriend was battered and bruised from head to toe in dozens of photos released byDeadspin. The pictures are jarring, sickening, and offensive. They’re also unnecessary. Details from the police report, 911 calls, and the victim’s testimony have been available since last summer. Anyone who cared could easily read how Hardy terrorized a woman half his size. Yet for the majority, seeing is believing, so the anger and outrage are fresh. Ray Rice all over again.
More than a year has passed since his elevator video came out. How much has actually changed? What’s different now? League officials saw the damning photos and tried to slap Hardy with a 10-game suspension under its new policy, but the NFLPA (who had access to the photos) defended its member and earned a reduction to four games. Under the new policy, a first-time offender is subject to a baseline six-game suspension; but somehow, Hardy only missed four. Somehow the union is more concerned about a player’s rights than the woman he nearly choked to death. No significant change there.
The conversation has definitely advanced in the last year. More sports fans are willing to engage in dialogue about domestic violence instead of allowing it to be swept under the rug. The media is tackling the issue as well, providing a forum for debate. Yet most of these public exchanges happen outside the football fraternity. When the Ray Rice video went viral, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti apologized over and over for not taking action sooner. He admitted he was embarrassed that his team and the league didn’t take domestic violence more seriously. But only one owner is speaking publicly about the Greg Hardy case–and that’s Jerry Jones. He continues to defend Hardy’s second chance and his commitment to doing the right thing, even calling him a leader and “inspiration” to his teammates.
None of those Dallas teammates will criticize the Hardy signing, not even in the wake of the photos. They have to work alongside him every day. But what about players in other cities? No doubt there are dozens whose lives have been personally affected by domestic violence. Why don’t they speak out? One former NFL MVP told me they’re reluctant to step into someone else’s mess. He said they all have to face one another on the field, and it’s generally easier to do their jobs without getting involved. A former Super Bowl champion shared another hesitation inside locker rooms: if you openly criticize a teammate’s personal failures, you run the risk of exposing yourself to backlash if the tables are turned and you screw up down the road. But he also told me he believes domestic violence WILL be roundly discussed, shamed, and ostracized behind closed doors.
A pair of Eagles offensive lineman took jabs at Hardy after they beat the Cowboys Sunday. Center Jason Kelce told reporters, “I’m glad he didn’t have a good day. It’s a joke a guy like that is able to play this quickly.” Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall broke with convention and criticized Hardy for the way he’s handled himself since returning to the field. Marshall told Showtime that Hardy didn’t learn his lesson and doesn’t understand the magnitude of what he did. Primarily, it’s former players willing to denounce Hardy’s actions publicly. Plenty of them blast Jerry Jones for caring more about the product on the field than the league’s attempt to change its image and crack down on domestic violence offenders.
Not every player tied to abuse or assault is getting another chance. Ray Rice remains unemployed. Defensive end Ray McDonald was released by the Bears after his second domestic violence arrest. And the Cardinals released running back Jonathan Dwyer when he was arrested for the same reason. They might still have jobs if not for the supercharged atmosphere surrounding the NFL in 2015. Fewer franchises are willing to take the risk and deal with backlash. Except there hasn’t been any forceful push-back from corporate sponsors about Hardy finding a new home in the league, not even with the release of the photos.
How much progress has been made over the last year? Not nearly enough. Growth is intentional, not accidental. It won’t happen without vigilance. As long as the league and the union grapple over the new policy, as long as teams harbor players who don’t show remorse, as long as owners are unwilling to present a vocal and united front–headway will be minimal.
A well-traveled veteran and pioneer of sports radio and television, Amy Lawrence is the host of CBS Sports Radio’s late-night program ‘After Hours with Amy Lawrence.’ The show can be heard weekdays from 2-6am ET on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. Follow her on Twitter @.