Crime & Courts

NFL’s domestic violence record: ‘The world is looking’

Of 27,000 domestic violence calls to 911 in Charlotte so far this year, the two involving Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy are drawing attention to what one victim describes as a silent evil.

Silent no more.

As the NFL struggles to deal with charges against Hardy and other players, Twitter is erupting with confessionals by battered women. The National Domestic Violence Hotline reported an 84 percent increase in calls in the two days after the release of a graphic video showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice brutally knocking his fiancee unconscious.

Every day in Charlotte, roughly 1 of every 10 emergency calls to police concerns domestic violence.

Victims’ advocates – from the National Organization for Women to Charlotte’s deputy city manager – have been pushing the $9 billion-a-year NFL to join their efforts to end violence against women. As the Panthers are featured on NBC’s Sunday night game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Hardy’s issues – and how his team handled the case – will get as much attention as the game.

“Domestic violence has always been in the darkness,” said Rashida Gittens, 38, an executive assistant at Duke Energy who was abused by a boyfriend and now speaks on behalf of Charlotte’s Safe Alliance. “It happens behind closed doors, and so, therefore, we don’t think it has anything to do with us.

“The NFL can bring it to the light,” she said. “Football players are role models, and the world is looking at them.”

On Friday, Commissioner Roger Goodell responded to the relentless criticism at a tense news conference. He said the NFL’s personal conduct policy for players had failed and would be rewritten. And he said the league will provide financial and promotional support to the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center to raise awareness.

But even in acknowledging the league’s failure – and his own – in dealing with violent players, Goodell provoked new criticism for failing to apologize specifically to the victims of domestic violence at the hands of NFL players.

“It’s a horrible response,” Raquel Singh, executive director of the advocacy group Voices of Women Organizing Project, told the New York Daily News. “The NFL has essentially re-victimized the victims by trying to smooth it over and not expressly giving their apologies to the victims.

“It’s just getting worse and worse and worse in their handling of it and understanding the cycles of violence.”

Helping the victims

It wasn’t until the release of the Rice video on Sept. 8 that the NFL publicly recognized the gravity of domestic violence within its ranks. At least 84 players have been arrested on domestic violence charges since 2000, according to a USA Today database. But no case has brought the attention like Rice’s brutal attack, caught on video and replayed millions of times.

Even Anheuser-Busch, the official beer of the NFL, voiced its concerns last week: “We are not yet satisfied with the league’s handling of behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and moral code.” Bank of America, whose name adorns the Panthers’ stadium, said it is monitoring developments.

If the high-profile NFL holds abusive players accountable, victims’ advocates said, that will send a message to victims everywhere that their complaints will be heard.

“We hope that locally and nationally that’s where the focus is going to be,” said Karen Parker, chief advancement officer for Safe Alliance in Charlotte and past chairwoman of the Governor’s Domestic Violence Commission. “The NFL has a huge opportunity to help so many victims.”

Safe Alliance has not seen a significant spike in calls because of the release of the Rice video. But its shelter already operates above capacity. On Thursday, 57 women and 62 children were living in the 80-bed facility.

“All the attention the issue is getting is a good thing for victims because they can see the community is holding that person accountable,” Parker said. “So maybe if I report and try to get help they will believe me, too.”

Ron Kimble, Charlotte’s deputy city manager, and his wife, Jan, started the Jamie Kimble Foundation for Courage after their daughter was killed by an ex-boyfriend two years ago in a murder-suicide. Her assailant worked for the Kansas City Chiefs. Three months later, Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend then committed suicide in front of the team’s general manager, head coach and linebackers coach.

Kimble hopes he can help the NFL address the problem of domestic violence. “Jan’s and my dream is that the NFL, the Panthers, Safe Alliance and the Jamie Kimble Foundaton for Courage can tackle this issue together.”

NFL too lenient?

The NFL’s crisis dates to February when Baltimore’s Rice knocked his fiancee unconscious in an elevator in an Atlantic City casino. TMZ.com obtained a video of Rice dragging her unconscious body out of the elevator. Rice was suspended for two games.

Despite criticism that the penalty was too lenient, the league did not suspend Rice indefinitely until Sept. 8 – after TMZ.com posted a new video of Rice brutally punching Janay Rice inside the elevator.

As the video went viral, women felt empowered to share their stories.

“People realized, ‘Oh my God, that’s me. I’m in that video,’ ” said Brian Pinero of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. “There’s just something about the visual image: One was seeing her head shoot back 3 feet to the right when he hit her. And the other is the way he treated her body when he dragged her out of the elevator.”

As outrage grew over how the NFL bungled its response to Rice, attention turned to Hardy.

The Panthers’ star was charged in May with assaulting an ex-girlfriend and threatening to kill her. Hardy was convicted by a judge in District Court, but he appealed for a jury trial. Under North Carolina law, the new trial will start with a clean slate, not taking into account the judge’s guilty finding.

The Panthers allowed Hardy, who signed a one-year, $13.1 million deal during the offseason, to play in the season opener Sept. 7 against Tampa Bay.

But as domestic violence became a national debate, the Panthers were criticized for being too lenient on Hardy. Over the next 10 days, the team’s position gradually shifted.

On Sept. 10, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson received the Echo Foundation Award Against Indifference. In an emotional speech, he urged the public “not to be too quick to judge.” Last Sunday, coach Ron Rivera benched Hardy just hours before the Panthers played Detroit. On Wednesday, Hardy took a voluntary leave with pay.

Joe Marinello, who taught criminal justice at UNC Charlotte, said the NFL has done a poor job of policing the issue.

“It’s a social issue that women have tried to address for the past 30 years,” said Marinello, who works with the county’s NOVA Batterer Intervention Program. “Men have remained in the shadows of darkness about it, and now they’re being forced to come out of the shadows. It’s a problem that women can’t just solve by themselves.”

Last year, Marinello said, UNC Charlotte coach Brad Lambert asked him to speak with the 49ers football team about domestic violence. The message: No tolerance.

‘I thought I was wrong’

Stephanie Butler of Charlotte knows what it’s like to be abused. She also knows the statistics. One in 4 women, and 1 in 7 men have suffered severe physical violence by an intimate partner, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.

Nevertheless, Butler said she is stunned by continued revelations about NFL players. On Wednesday, Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer was arrested on charges that he head-butted his wife and broke her nose after she refused to have sex. He has been deactivated from all team activities.

San Francisco defensive end Ray McDonald was arrested Aug. 31 on allegations of domestic violence but has not been charged. He remains in the 49ers’ starting lineup. New York Jets wide receiver Quincy Enunwa was arrested Sept. 4 and has pleaded not guilty to assault. He is listed on the team’s practice squad.

“If that was any old John and Jane Smith in that elevator, I don’t think it would have made as big an impact as it has now,” Butler said. “It’s a big eye-opener for a lot of people. Little kids look up to these men. They want to be like football players.”

Butler, 34, is a volunteer with Safe Alliance, which provides support and shelter to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence in Charlotte.

Butler sought counseling there in 2007 after she left an abusive boyfriend. She had endured verbal and physical abuse for four years. The worst night, she said, he beat her, pushed her head through a wall, ripped out chunks of her hair and flung her through a glass door. Even then, she refused to press charges.

“I thought it was me,” Butler said. “I thought I was wrong, I was doing something to make him mad.”

#WhyIStayed

After the Rice video surfaced, TV commentators and many other people questioned why his fiancee stayed with her abuser and married him less than two months later.

From that discussion was born the #WhyIStayed hashtag on Twitter. Beverly Gooden, a Charlotte human resource manager, launched the poignant online confession with a simple statement:

“Domestic violence victims often find it difficult to leave abusers.”

Battered women responded by the thousands about why they stayed, sharing their reasons in 140 characters or fewer. Others responded with a #WhyILeft hashtag.

Some people, including these three women from Charlotte, posted on both accounts:

#WhyIStayed I had no self esteem. #whyileft Didn’t want 2 die

#WhyIStayed Because he said he loved me and I had never been loved by a man #WhyILeft he repeatedly slammed the door on me while he held me

# WhyIStayed .. My kids #WhyILeft ... My kids

‘Afraid to leave’

For Rashida Gittens and other victims, the ongoing media coverage has reopened old wounds.

Gittens said she was abused for eight years, beginning in her early 20s, by the man she loved. “He was very charismatic,” she said. “There were some signs, some verbal words of aggression. When I wanted to go hang out with friends, he would become volatile, angry.”

The abuse turned physical after they moved to Charlotte in 2002.

“I was afraid to leave,” she said, “afraid people would judge me.”

She credits her faith and her friends for giving her courage.

Gittens said she thinks the NFL is finally taking appropriate steps. “A lot of people look at domestic violence as relational and private. But it doesn’t affect just two people. It affects children and family and community and society – it just goes out like a shock wave.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, domestic violence against women costs billions of dollars in health care and lost productivity every year.

Gittens, who said she is now in a healthy relationship with a wonderful man, said there’s another intangible cost:

“These players need to understand that children watch them and want to be like them.”

Reporters Joe DePriest and Gavin Off and Researcher Maria David contributed.

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