Let’s get these out of the way early, so we can hopefully head off the most common criticisms that follow any story on athletes and domestic violence. No, we don’t think abusers should be banned from the NFL and forever exiled to Kolyma for their crimes. No, there is nothing wrong with teams signing or drafting convicted criminals. No, it is neither necessary nor desirable for the NFL to subsume the work of the legal system.
The Seattle Times’ revelation earlier this week about the Seahawks’ failure to poke into the violent past of second-round draft pick Frank Clark was quickly buried by the conclusion of the innocuous Patriots scandal (something the NFL seems to have a knack for), but it remains incredibly galling. And not even because the team’s investigation had blind spots so obvious and rectifiable that they could only have been the product of intentional omission, but because of the Seahawks’ stubborn insistence that they had done everything right.
General manager John Schneider could have said, What Clark did was horrible, but he paid the punishment as adjudicated by the courts. Crime and punishment is far beyond the scope of my job as a football general manager. Instead, he chose easily disprovable fiction.
After not reading the police report or speaking to any of the witnesses or prosecutors, Schneider proudly stated that the Seahawks “had done a ton of research” on Clark, and now had “an in-depth understanding of the situation and background.” After ignoring the multiple witnesses who saw Clark punching his then-girlfriend, and the multiple witnesses who saw her unconscious, and the multiple photos of her bruises, Schneider confidently pronounced that if “it was punching a woman or striking a woman he would not have been on our board.’’
Schneider was merely doing his job, which in this instance was entirely about public relations. It was up to him to convince NFL fans and media, at a time of unprecedented domestic-violence awareness, that the Seahawks were mindful. The only way to do that was to lie.
The hypocrisy runs deep, as Seattle Weekly notes. Before the 2012 draft, Schneider was unequivocal.
“Suffice it to say, we would never, ever take a player that struck a female, or had a domestic dispute like that, or did anything like that.”
(Head coach Pete Carroll, while not speaking in similar absolutes, has also indicated his distaste for fielding domestic abusers.)
Since that statement, the Seahawks have signed or drafted six players with records of domestic or sexual violence:
- On April 3, 2013, Seattle signed DT Tony McDaniel. Three years earlier, McDaniel was charged with domestic violence after an argument with his girlfriend, in which she told police he shoved her to the ground and she struck her head. He later pleaded no-contest to disorderly conduct.
- On Nov. 26, 2013, Seattle signed CB Perrish Cox. Three years earlier, Cox was arrested on sexual assault charges after a woman accused him of raping her while she was passed out. Cox denied ever having sex with his accuser, but she
gave birth toaborted a fetus that DNA tests proved was Cox’s. Cox was acquitted on all charges.
- On June 12, 2014, Seattle signed DT Kevin Williams. Nine years earlier, Williams was arrested on a charge of domestic assault after his wife told police he threw her into a bedstand because she wasn’t wearing her wedding ring. Williams pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.
- On May 2, 2014, Seattle signed CB A.J. Jefferson. A year earlier, he was arrested after allegedly choking his girlfriend during an argument. Jefferson pleaded guilty to a count of domestic assault.
- On March 10, 2015, Seattle signed CB Cary Williams. Five years earlier, Williams was suspended by the NFL after an alleged domestic-violence incident. He was never charged.
- Last week, Seattle drafted Frank Clark. According to the police report and interviews with witnesses, Clark punched his then-girlfriend repeatedly, and “grabbed her by the throat, picked her up off the ground and slammed her to the ground.” Clark was charged with domestic violence and assault but pleaded down to disorderly conduct.
You’ll note that of the six players, only one was found guilty of a domestic-violence specific charge. (Three others struck plea deals for lesser charges.) This isn’t a surprise; domestic violence is notoriously difficult to prosecute, often because the victims choose not to cooperate, if not outright change their minds and lie to get their lovers cleared.
This gives teams like the Seahawks their out. When Schneider says the team wouldn’t draft someone who “[struck] a woman,” he can point to the fact that his latest draftee, who by every witness account viciously beat his girlfriend into unconsciousness, was merely found guilty of disorderly conduct.
It is not in any team’s competitive or financial interests to care too much about the criminal backgrounds of men who are good at the sport, aside from avoiding negative coverage. Football is incentivized—by the attention of the same fans and reporters who hammer the league for its troglodytic domestic-violence stances—to care about winning. And it can’t possibly be any other way.
We should not want the NFL taking an active role in these matters, because it has proven time and time again that it will screw things up. So far, the league’s response to domestic violence has consisted of some token donations and hires, a scam PSA campaign, and randomly throwing the book at some offenders while ignoring others altogether. The legal system, for all its flaws when prosecuting partner abuse, is at least established, accepted, and transparent. Evidence and records are made publicly available, and there are mechanisms for judges and prosecutors to be removed and punished, and laws to be changed. But the NFL’s wheel of justice spins inside an impenetrable black box; we should not desire any citizen or employee to face a secret tribunal where media pressure is the biggest mitigating factor. The personal-conduct policy reads the morning papers.
A coherent hands-off policy would be ugly. Ray Rice would have played in a national-TV game three days after the release of his elevator tape, for example. It’s easy to see why the league and its teams want to reserve arbitrary and immediate discipline for themselves, if only for the optics.
But encouraging the league to claw its way up the slippery slope of determining which crimes are beyond the pale only legitimizes the NFL’s self-serving claim that it’s capable of achieving moral high ground, or even that sports and morality should be meaningfully linked in any way beyond being aware of what kind of human beings your favorite athletes are.
None of this is to say the NFL can’t address domestic violence, a real problem in its ranks, and something on which it has enough popular appeal to influence the culture at large. It can talk up the issues to its players and fans; it can choose not employ fixers to cover up trouble; teams can take into account the public outrage when conducting a cost-benefit analysis of signing a player with a past. But utilizing moral claims as branding tools—especially when done with such transparent cynicism—is exploitative, insulting, and functionally useless. The NFL is swinging wildly between denial and leadership, seemingly incapable of occupying some honest intermediate point. Respecting the legal process is the only path for the league to stay out of its own way.
Professional sports is uniquely unequipped to deal with something so complicated and vile as domestic violence. The real crime of the Seahawks, who took their every cue from the NFL, was in pretending otherwise.