Two former NFL wives talked to the Washington Post about why they stayed in abusive relationships, and both describe in the story published Friday how the league, the union, coaches, and even cops encouraged them to stay silent. They say not to expect the newfound focus on domestic violence to make a meaningful difference: "You will hear of a wife murdered before you hear another one come forward."
The Post talked to two women, one of whom declined to be named because her ex-husband is still associated with the league. She recalled a night in the 1990s when several players were out celebrating the New Orleans Saints' first big win of the season. At one point, she says, her husband got mad and dragged her to their SUV while nearby officers were convinced not to intervene by a teammate. She says the attack grew worse at home:
He pushed me to the top of the stairs and shoved me over to the bed. When I stood up, he punched me, and the next thing I remember is coming to on the floor. I remember pulling my legs up to the fetal position to protect myself from his kick after kick. I was vomiting and gasping for air and remember screaming, 'You are going to kill me!' ...
Neighbors who saw the altercation begin outside their home had called the police. But when they arrived, instead of arresting her husband, the officers chatted and laughed with him about his successful game, she says. One requested an autograph for his kid. When her husband cleaned the blood from her face and ushered her downstairs to assure the police officers all was well in the home, they overlooked any evidence of abuse, she says, and as far as she knows they never filed a police report.
The next day, she says she was phoned by a representative from the Saints.
[The rep] said she called to 'check on me.' … I knew what the call meant. I think every wife knows innately what that call means: 'Your husband needs this job, and you don't want to take his dream away now do you?' I lost more than my dignity. I lost my voice, my self-confidence, my identity. I was just a football player's wife, collateral damage.
Dewan Smith-Williams is still married to former offensive lineman Wally Williams, though they live separately. Smith Williams recalled what happened in 2001, when police found marijuana inside their home. Then-Saints coach Jim Haslett left a note on their door telling them to call him before talking to anyone else, Smith-Williams said. Later, Haslett told her, "Don't talk to the media. Don't talk to the police. We will handle it." So when her husband did get violent, Smith-Williams remembered that advice.
The next year, during his final season, Williams tested positive for marijuana use and received a four-game suspension. So when Smith-Williams found marijuana in their Baltimore home, she confronted her husband about it. He stormed through their Baltimore house with a baseball bat, hitting doors, chairs and pictures while threatening her, she says. But after Coach Haslett's warning the previous year, she chose not to call the cops. Instead, she rang the NFLPA rep assigned to Williams's case. He told her to stay safe and to let Williams leave the house. He said that someone would call her back. That call never came. Smith-Williams wasn't entirely surprised — the league rarely returned calls from her or other wives, they had told her. So she didn't bother calling again.
The Saints declined to comment, the players' union declined to comment, and Haslett did not return calls or emails for comment. An NFL spokesman told the Post they didn't have a record of such an event. Reports were filed for two other times that Smith-Williams said she was attacked by her husband, in 2001 and 2005, although both times she declined to press charges. In 2001, she said she declined charges because "I didn't want him to lose his job. Bottom line."
Williams denied all the abuse allegations against him an declined to comment on any specific claims, the Post reported.
What do these women think of the NFL's newfound tough stance on domestic violence? They don't think it will work. Fear of losing money to fines and suspension was part of what pressured them to stay quiet, and they tougher penalties will only make that fear worse. The women said the focus should be less on punishment and more on rehabilitation. But with Roger Goodell codifying tougher penalties for domestic violence, including an indefinite ban for a second offense, that couldn't be further from the NFL way.
Image via Associated Press