In response to pressure from women's groups, domestic violence prevention agencies and players, the National Football League increased its penalties for domestic violence offenses. NFL employees will now face a six-game suspension for a first domestic violence offense, and a lifetime ban (with the possibility of appeal) for a second offense.
The increased penalties are a welcome relief following the light punishment received by the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Rice, who was given a two-game suspension for punching his fiancée, Janay, so hard she lost consciousness.
With this great first step of toughening sanctions, the task now is ensuring follow-through. What's critical here is ensuring a detailed understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence -- including an understanding of behaviors typical of chronic offenders and a realization that our best chances at prevention involve teaching young people early on (in middle and high school) the necessary skills to effectively resolve conflict in their relationships.
Let's start with the dynamics of chronic abusers. Ray Rice's public apology for knocking his fiancée unconscious is a critical instructional tool for exemplifying behavioral patterns of chronic domestic violence offenders.
During his public apology, Rice claimed the event was a "one-time incident" that he will face for the rest of his life. He also claimed Janay is "an angel" who "can do no wrong," while asserting that he and Janay are on their way to making a better life: "We're in counseling. We've taken the necessary steps to move forward." Rice promised that he and Janay will make amends by reaching out to others: "When the time is right ... me and my wife, we want to go out there and help people with violence of any kind." Rice also stated: "What happened that night is a huge mistake on my behalf. I take full responsibility."
While the apology may be earnest, from the lens of the domestic violence experts, Rice's statements (and behaviors) bear striking similarities to chronic abusers.
"One-time event." Domestic violence involving knocking a victim unconscious is nearly always preceded by underlying power and control used by the abuser to tyrannize the victim--including controlling who the victim can/cannot talk to, what she can/cannot wear and where she goes, calling the victim names and putting her down and harassing her. There is a tendency, as well, for abusers to minimize their own behaviors, including Rice's assurance that knocking Janay unconscious was a "one-time event."
"An angel" who can "do no wrong." Abusers commonly elevate the status of their victims to angels, saints and other unattainable representations during the contrition period following severe violence. For example, in a study of chronically violent offenders, an offender reminded his victim "Stand up and be that Saint Mary. Be that woman you're supposed to be. Bear the baby of Noah." This statement occurred days after the offender punched his victim thirty times in the head, knocking her unconscious.
"What happened that night is a huge mistake on my behalf. I take full responsibility." Rice follows with "I just don't want to keep reliving the incident ... I'm trying to move on ..." Reliving the incident is about taking accountability, where domestic violence offenders are notoriously ineffective. Janay is certainly "reliving the incident," as being knocked unconscious has long-lasting ramifications.
"When the time is right ... me and my wife, we want to go out there and help people with violence of any kind." This implies shared responsibility for the violence and the need for shared public redemption, a behavioral pattern consistent with chronic abusers. In a similar case investigated in Washington state, an offender coached his victim after he assaulted her: "Just tell them 'me and my man, we were on drugs, we got in an argument ...we're in counseling now, it's all better.'"
"We're in counseling. We've taken the necessary steps to move forward." This implies, again, shared responsibility for the violence and shared rehabilitation.
While we can hope Ray Rice will be different, his apology and behaviors bear striking similarities to chronic abusers. His example is one for the entire league to consider in moving forward to effectively implement the new domestic violence policy.
Another critical consideration is the use of strategies to prevent abuse before it occurs for the first time. Accordingly, leading organizations such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are implementing strategic primary prevention planning across 10 U.S. states to curb domestic violence before it occurs the first time.
For the NFL, a redeeming investment could involve supporting promising primary prevention programs such as Coaching Boys into Men, which is designed for school-age athletes.
Coaching Boys into Men is founded on the principle that coaches play an influential role in the lives of young men and are therefore poised to positively influence how young men think and act, on and off the field -- including how they treat women.
Indeed, evidence shows that those young men who received the Coaching Boys into Men intervention had lower rates of relationship violence perpetration, months later, than young men who did not receive the intervention.
In summary, including an understanding of behaviors typical of chronic domestic violence offenders and a realization that our best chances at prevention involve intervening with adolescents will augment the NFL's strong move to increase penalties for domestic violence offenders.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.