THE BLOG
10/06/2014 09:45 pm ET Updated Oct 10, 2014

Tackling the Culture of Cruelty in the NFL

When Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocked his then-fianceé unconscious, the NFL suspended him for two games. Only after a video of the incident surfaced did the NFL suspend Rice indefinitely. Regrettably, that suspension is on appeal, and Rice may evade punishment by invoking Article 46 of his collective bargaining agreement, which bars the NFL from disciplining a player twice for the same conduct. The NFL's shocking response to Rice's egregious behavior has sparked a national debate on interpersonal violence in the NFL.

This debate is much needed because unfortunately, Rice is not the first and likely will not be the last NFL player accused of interpersonal violence. According to USA Today, 85 NFL players have been arrested for domestic violence since 2000. Similarly, Sports Illustrated reports that approximately fourteen NFL players have been arrested for violence against women in the last two years alone.

Disturbing stories ripped from the headlines support these statistics. In just the past few weeks, Minnesota Viking Adrian Peterson has been indicted for child abuse, Carolina Panther Greg Hardy has been accused of choking and threatening to murder his then-girlfriend, and Arizona Cardinal Jonathan Dwyer has been formally charged with assaulting his wife. (McLaughlin & Martin, 2014; Almasy, 2014).

Notably, however, interpersonal violence is not the only misconduct plaguing the NFL. To the contrary, NFL players have also repeatedly been accused of animal cruelty and dogfighting. In 2005, former NFL running back LeShon Johnson was sentenced for dogfighting. (Van Valkenburg, 2007). Retired Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Ronde Barber reportedly told Sports Illustrated, "I would bet you that every player in the NFL knows someone who has been to a dogfight." Humane Society expert, John Goodwin, agreed, noting the existence of a "pervasive subculture of dogfighting in the NFL." (Van Valkenburg, 2007).

Nowhere was this culture of cruelty made more apparent than when NFL quarterback, Michael Vick, was sentenced to 23 months in prison for his involvement in an illegal dogfighting ring. A raid of Vick's home reportedly unearthed more than 50 scarred and starved pit bulls as well as other evidence of dogfighting, including bloody carpets, pry bars to open canine jaws, a "rape stand" to force mating, and treadmills to condition dogs. (Roberts, 2007). Vick and his associates were further accused of hanging and drowning dogs as well as slamming another dog to death. (ALDF Case Study, 2011). Despite this brutality, Goodell reinstated Vick to the NFL in 2009. That same year, Vick signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, and in 2014, he signed a one-year, $5 million deal to play for the New York Jets. (Cimini, 2014).

In the wake of the Ray Rice controversy, Goodell has admitted to mishandling the NFL's response to Rice's behavior and vowed to "get it right." (Greenberg, 2014). Although the NFL's Personal Conduct Policy already states that "[d]iscipline may be imposed" for criminal offenses, including but not limited to domestic violence, as well as "conduct that imposes inherent danger to the safety and well being of another person," Goodell consulted with former players and four prominent women - Anna Isaacson, Lisa Friel, Jane Randel, and Rita Smith - to craft tougher sanctions for domestic violence and sexual assault. (McLaughlin & Martin, 2014). As a result of these discussions, the NFL announced that violations involving assault, battery, domestic violence, or sexual assault that involve physical force will now result in an unpaid six-game suspension for a first offense "with consideration given to mitigating factors, as well as a longer suspension when circumstances warrant." (Almasy & Nichols, 2014). A second offense will result in a lifetime ban that may be appealed after one year.

Notably, Goodell did not consult with leading anti-cruelty organizations, such as the Animal Legal Defense Fund, The National Resource Center on The Link between Animal Abuse and Human Violence, The Humane Society of the United States, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ("ASPCA"). This omission is troubling given that animal cruelty is indisputably linked to interpersonal violence. To truly tackle the culture of cruelty in the NFL, the Personal Conduct Policy should also take a tougher stance against animal cruelty since doing so may preempt ensuing violence against women and children.

Animal cruelty is a particularly strong indicator of domestic violence. (Stecker, 2004; Ascione, 1996). According to the American Humane Association, "71% of pet-owning women entering women's shelters reported that their batterer had injured, maimed, killed or threatened family pets for revenge or to psychologically control victims." Abusers may also use pets and service animals as tools to perpetrate domestic violence, even forcing them to commit bestiality. (Quinlisk, 1999). Fear of pet abuse may even deter victims from escaping abusers. According to a 2004 study, 48% of abused women delayed leaving their abusers due to fear for their pet's safety. (Forell, 2008). In the presence of animal abuse, "the chance of domestic violence lethality generally increases." (Friedman & Norman, 2009). As such, imposing harsher sanctions on perpetrators of animal cruelty could perhaps simultaneously prevent or reduce incidents of both interpersonal violence and animal abuse.

A strong correlation also exists between animal cruelty and child abuse. Studies demonstrate a link between child abuse and animal neglect, and the likelihood of animal abuse is much higher in families where child abuse is present. (Ascione, 2001). Anecdotal evidence supports this connection. For example, in Ohio, police responding to a complaint of animal cruelty discovered abused animals as well as two young children covered in feces and urine and locked in a bedroom. (Ponder & Lockwood, 2000). Furthermore, abusers may threaten to harm or kill pets to discourage children from reporting abuse. (Robbins, 2006; Crowell, 1999).

For all of these reasons, taking a tougher stance against animal cruelty would better effectuate the spirit and intent of the NFL's Personal Conduct Policy, which prohibits conduct that "sullies the reputation of" and "undermines public respect and support for the NFL." Because revelations of player involvement in animal cruelty and illegal dogfighting receive widespread media attention and generate a public outcry, such involvement certainly erodes the "integrity of and public confidence in" the NFL. The Personal Conduct Policy already prohibits the commission of criminal offenses, and every state bans animal cruelty and dogfighting in part because these activities are often precursors to interpersonal violence and other crimes. According to Dr. Randall Lockwood of the ASPCA, dogfighting rings are frequently linked to gang activity and gambling. Dogfight raids often unearth drugs, weapons, gambling, and offenders with outstanding warrants. (Lockwood, 2014). Public outrage over Rice's misconduct and Vick's involvement in dogfighting demonstrates the devastating reputational harm that often ensues from players' misconduct off the field.

In response to the Ray Rice debacle, Goodell described the NFL as a "leader" that "stand[s] for important values", which it "can project . . . in ways that have a positive impact beyond professional football." Presumably speaking on the NFL's behalf, Goodell vowed to "embrace this role and the responsibility that comes with it" and to "seek continuous improvement in everything we do." Although the NFL has made forward progress with regard to its response to interpersonal violence, these efforts will be incomplete unless the NFL's Personal Conduct Policy also takes into account the undeniable link between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence. That strong link has prompted the enactment of anticruelty legislation across America and likely played a role in the FBI's recent decision to classify animal abuse as a separate "Type A" offense and "crime against society." The NFL should follow suit, revising its Personal Conduct Policy to denounce the pervasive culture of cruelty within the NFL and to reflect the increasing recognition of the strong link between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence.