Is the NFL Really Taking on Sexual Assault?


The day after National Football League (NFL) Commissioner Roger Goodell announced plans to revise the league's Personal Conduct Policy to better address domestic violence allegations against its personnel, he was handed his first test.

Dallas Cowboys safety C.J. Spillman was accused on September 20 of an alleged sexual assault in Grapevine, Texas, and less than three weeks later, another alleged victim leveled accusations in relation to a separate 2013 incident in California.

Spillman has not been charged by police in either case, but the NFL's investigation into the allegations has become the first test of a new league policy that some say doesn't go far enough in pursuing domestic violence allegations — and some say goes too far.

Gloria Allred, the attorney who represents both women who accused Spillman, says the jury is out on how effective the new policy will be. But she says the NFL's investigation of the allegations has been “intensive.”

“These are former prosecutors who did sex crime investigations and in many ways it's being treated, I think, like a criminal investigation,” Allred told The Crime Report during a recent phone interview. She said she's met with investigators in New York and California.

“In terms of what is being requested. It's maybe even more than many jurisdictions would do.”

As the Super Bowl nears, the overwhelming focus of media coverage has been about deflated footballs and zany press conferences, but long after the NFL crowns its champion on February 1, the 2014 season will be remembered as a year defined by the league's often-bungled responses to allegations of criminal violence.

On Sept. 8, 2014, TMZ released surveillance video of former Baltimore Raven Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancée unconscious in a March 2014 altercation in Atlantic City; four days later, Texas authorities brought child abuse charges against Minnesota Viking Adrian Peterson.

Rice was suspended indefinitely and then reinstated in November following a union appeal, but did not play for the rest of the season. Peterson was suspended for the rest of the season.

On September 17, the Carolina Panthers followed suit and deactivated Greg Hardy, who had been convicted on June 15, 2014 of assaulting an ex-girlfriend.

In September, the league hired Lisa Friel, former Manhattan prosecutor and vice-president of the security firm T&M Protection Resources, as a senior advisor to Goodell. In December, it announced an update to its Personal Conduct Policy.

“The new policy will embrace the use of independent investigations; we will no longer rely solely on information developed in law enforcement proceedings,” Goodell wrote in a December 9 memorandum to team executives and presidents.

While the new policy doesn't add any new punishments, it clarifies the league's process for investigating allegations of violent crime or sexual assault. Under the policy, players can be placed on paid leave even if they are not charged with any crime, if an ongoing NFL investigation finds “evidence that it appears a violation of the policy has occurred.”

Spillman played this season without being placed on paid leave.

After an investigation concludes, the league can hand down punishments ranging from a fine to suspension or, if a player has been punished before, even banishment. Players can appeal rulings to a panel of experts, but Goodell has the authority to either accept or disregard that panel's recommendations.

Not everyone is thrilled about the policy.

On December 10, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) released a statement saying it had not been consulted before the update was implemented.

“Our union has not been offered the professional courtesy of seeing the NFL’s new personal conduct policy before it hit the presses,” the NFLPA said. “Their unilateral decision and conduct today is the only thing that has been consistent over the past few months.”

Representatives of the NFLPA and NFL did not respond to requests for comment on the Spillman investigation.

Marc Edelman, an associate professor of law at the Baruch College Zicklin School of Business, said the NFL may be overstepping. Other major sports leagues, most notably Major League Baseball (MLB), employ seasoned investigators who doggedly pursue allegations, but a neutral third-party arbitrator typically handles disputes.

Edelman, who worked from 2006 through 2008 for the former law firm Dewey Ballantine LLP, which represented the NFLPA, points to MLB's investigations of alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs by stars Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun.

MLB investigators went as far as paying $125,000 for stolen lab records connected to the Rodriguez case.

An arbitrator reduced the suspension originally levied against Rodriguez, and in Braun's case, threw out the suspension entirely.

But Edelman said the NFLPA failed to prioritize issues with the Personal Conduct Policy during its most recent collective bargaining negotiation, a process that was punctuated in 2011 by a lockout of players by team owners. NFL players, whose careers average just a few years, were in a rush to get back on the field and put salary issues ahead of ensuring access to an arbitrator.

“In my mind, it was a major strategic mistake by the players association,” Edelman said. Now the NFL is essentially free to issue whatever sanctions it deems fit, he added.

“The NFL seems to be taking the position that it's all-powerful, that it's in the position of government,” Edelman said.

But Matthew Mitten, Director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University, said Tuesday that the NFL is on “solid ground.”

Mitten said commissioners of professional sports leagues have traditionally been given “best interest of sport powers,” which afford them broad latitude in issuing rulings intended to bolster the public's perception of the leagues. He noted that the investigators working for the NFL have potentially easier jobs than prosecutors and cops who may be investigating the same allegations.

“It's a very different burden of proof. A prosecutor has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime has been committed. The league just has to prove that a violation of its personal conduct policy has occurred,” Mitten said.

Four months after the first allegations against Spillman were made public, the NFL still has not announced whether he violated the Personal Conduct Policy, and Allred worries that it, and the investigation, could amount to nothing more than a public relations ploy.

“They poured a lot of money into their public relations campaign, with PSAs, with the commissioner doing a mea culpa over the handling of the Ray Rice incident,” Allred said.

“You know, they've got a lot of money to pour into damage control and they're doing it. But the question is, in the end, what difference does it make for the alleged victim?”

Graham Kates is Deputy Managing Editor of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers. He can be found on Twitter, @GrahamKates.

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