Deborah Epstein is a law professor at Georgetown, where she’s also co-director of the law center’s Domestic Violence Clinic. Today, she published an op-ed in the Washington Post revealing that she and another person, a past president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, recently resigned from the NFL Players Association’s commission on domestic violence. The reason, Epstein wrote, is pretty simple—the commission wasn’t getting anything done.
Calling the NFLPA’s domestic violence initiative a “fig leaf” and “lip service,” the op-ed starts with Epstein sounding like many people who have gotten involved with pro football’s various initiatives to make things better: She saw it as a chance to make a difference on an issue she cares deeply about. And NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith assured her that the commission would be taken seriously and would take real action, Epstein wrote.
For the first year of the commission, Epstein said that seemed to happen. The group kept meeting. She partnered with a research psychologist out of Boston College for a study on the lives of players’ wives and ways to help them when family violence happens. Epstein writes that a confidentiality agreement means she can’t discuss the findings publicly, but she did say “we made numerous systematic recommendations of concrete steps that would go a long way toward dramatically lowering the risk of domestic violence in professional football.”
Since then, nothing has happened, Epstein wrote:
That study was completed two years ago, in June 2016. Since then, despite my numerous requests, the commission has met only three times. As of our last meeting, the NFLPA had not implemented any of the reforms proposed in our study.
I also have made several other suggestions for commission projects that could help reduce intimate-partner violence in the domain of professional football. In recent weeks, as I reviewed my correspondence with the players association, a deflating pattern emerged. My NFLPA contacts would initially greet these ideas with a burst of enthusiasm and an indication of likely implementation, but efforts to follow up would yield nothing in the way of specific plans, and eventually communication would fade into radio silence.
This isn’t particularly surprising, given how much of the apparatus around football and other pro sports have handled domestic violence. The most visible thing the NFL did to fight domestic violence was run PSAs for a sham during the Super Bowl, and those lasted just two years before the NFL quietly stopped running them. The NFL made a big deal out of announcing its $10 million donation to help groups fighting sexual violence, but to the NFL that amount is nothing. And any such donations, if made, haven’t been given big, splashy announcements since.
That’s no big surprise. A few months after announcing their big donation in 2016, Colin Kaepernick took a knee. Kaepernick’s silent protest of police violence against black Americans, followed by his sudden inability to get a job, continues to be the dominant story in American football, which means all the energy of various leaders pledging to “get things right” goes there too. Caring about domestic violence was always about public relations. It was never anything more than that.