What the NFL did right in its new domestic abuse policy

The NFL announced its new domestic violence policy Wednesday, and it includes a number of reforms that experts say companies nationwide should consider. 

Brandon Wade/AP
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell speaks at an NFL press conference announcing new measures for the league's personal conduct policy in Irving, Texas, Wednesday. Arizona Cardinals president and chairman of the NFL's new Conduct Committee Michael Bidwill (l.) and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft (r.) look on.

The embattled National Football League, widely criticized for its reaction to the Ray Rice domestic abuse scandal earlier this year, has unveiled a new policy that includes reforms embraced by many of the most forward-thinking employers on the issue.

On Wednesday, league owners endorsed a policy that includes clearer guidelines, funds for counseling, expanded services for victims and violators, and – perhaps most significantly, experts say – a new special counsel for investigations and conduct.

Players were not consulted on the changes and so could challenge them in court. Indeed, the question of what role employers should play in disciplining employees accused of domestic abuse is fraught with moral and legal complexities. But the reforms announced by the NFL Wednesday offer at least a taste of how companies can aggressively address domestic violence, both for victims and the accused.

“We live in a nation where anyone accused has legal rights,” says Lauren Stiller Rikleen, president of the Rikleen Institute for Strategic Leadership, a Boston-area consultancy that focuses on workplace challenges. “But on the other hand, there are areas where the workplace should be expected to step up more and take a more active role in addressing domestic violence.”

She adds: “Employers have to figure out, ‘What am I willing to do set a clear tone and expectation of zero tolerance for domestic violence? What are my rights as an employer to do that, without violating the rights that somebody involved may have throughout the court processes involved?’ ”

The NFL policy takes steps on many of these fronts. In addition to the new funds for counseling and expanded services for victims and families, the policy also includes a more extensive list of prohibited conduct, and a baseline suspension of six games without pay for any form of violent behavior.

But it is the league's decision to hire a disciplinary officer as a special counsel that is perhaps the most aggressive step. The counsel can help the league navigate the tangle of state laws on the issue, allowing it to take meaningful disciplinary actions that will stand up in court.

“That is what every workplace should be doing, and this issue does require unique legal counsel as part of the process,” says Ms. Rikleen, also the executive-in-residence at the Boston College Center for Work & Family.

In recent months, the players union has expressed alarm at what it says is the NFL’s capricious approach to player discipline. It has insisted that players be disciplined only when they have been convicted of a felony. It also wants the personal conduct policy to be a part of the collective-bargaining process.

But the current NFL contract does not expire until 2021, and the league believes that the current collective-bargaining agreement gives the commissioner broad powers to discipline players.

In an letter to the players’ union, the NFL’s top lawyer wrote that the “personal conduct policy has always made clear that the standard of conduct is higher than simply not being guilty of a crime.”

Still, in November, an arbitrator nullified Mr. Rice’s indefinite suspension by the NFL, which was handed down after a surveillance video showed him knocking out his now-wife, Janay, in a hotel elevator. Initially, Mr. Goodell had suspended the former Baltimore Ravens running back two games before changing that to an indefinite suspension. Rice is now free to play again.

The NFL, of course, is not a typical employer, and in the NFL employees are not only well-paid performers in the limelight of the nation’s most popular sport, they are part of a television juggernaut and billion-dollar cash cow.

But experts hope the NFL spotlight will continue to bring attention to the issue of domestic violence. The US economy loses more than $8.3 billion a year because of domestic violence, according to one study, including the costs of medical care, mental health services, and lost productivity.

“The delta between what has been done to date, and what could be done, is so vast,” says Rikleen.

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