In a now-public letter sent this week to all 32 professional football teams, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced new penalties for players accused of domestic violence, including “banishment” for a second offense.
The new rules come after the league faced widespread criticism for Goodell’s decision to give Baltimore running back Ray Rice a two-game suspension when he faced assault charges after surveillance video showed him dragging his unconscious fiancée (now wife) off an elevator.
“My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families,” Goodell wrote. “I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn’t get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.”
Under updates to the league’s Personal Conduct Policy, a player’s first domestic violence or sexual assault offense warrants a six-game suspension without pay. If a player has a history of domestic violence before his NFL days, or if the assault includes weapons, beatings, or children, the league could mandate more severe penalties. The lifetime “banishment” incurred by a second offense can be appealed after one year.
The new rules represent a significant change from league history. About 77 players have been involved in domestic violence incidents since 2000, according to press analysis of USA Today’s NFL Arrests Database. Teams cut six of those players, and six received one-game suspensions. Rice was the second player to receive a two-game suspension.
Domestic violence groups applauded the harsher rules Thursday and encouraged prevention through education. “We’re pleased to have the opportunity to work with the NFL to help elevate their leadership in preventing violence against women,” said Esta Soler, president of Futures Without Violence and one of the advisers Goodell reached out to after the Ray Rice controversy.
Other steps Goodell pledged include working with outside groups to create “enhanced training” for all employees, from incoming rookies to human resources personnel. He also promised to update the league’s emergency resources and call centers and incorporate messages of respect for women and conflict resolution into youth football arms.
“These steps are based on a clear, simple principle: Domestic violence and sexual assault are wrong,” Goodell said.
The memo still leaves some questions, though, like whether players can face suspension without formal charges. The league’s Personal Conduct Policy is not subject to collective bargaining with the players union, so Goodell is judge and jury. He pledged to address incidents “fairly and thoughtfully, respecting the rights of all involved and giving proper deference to law enforcement and the courts.”
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2010 received a four-game suspension for his involvement in an alleged sexual assault. The suspension came after authorities decided not to press charges, making him the first NFL player suspended for violating the Personal Conduct Policy without first being arrested, charged, or convicted.
Sports leagues, as with all employers, aren’t bound to the “innocent until proven guilty” mantra, but a lifetime ban in such a situation may face pushback. “As we do in all disciplinary matters, if we believe that players’ due process rights are infringed upon during the course of discipline, we will assert and defend our members’ rights,” the NFL Players Association said briefly Thursday.