A new year always brings hope that maybe, just maybe, this year will be different.
In the NFL that dream has already died.
It’s only March, and already Greg Hardy has been signed by the Dallas Cowboys, Ray McDonald has been signed by the Chicago Bears. If that’s not enough Adrian Peterson is still a Minnesota Viking and Jameis Winston is being considered as the top pick in the draft.
It was just a couple of months ago that the NFL was airing commercials during the games with NFL players looking directly at the camera and saying, “No More” to domestic violence and sexual assault. Already a big “unless” has been added to the end of that.
Unless there isn’t a tape of your crime for TMZ to leak.
Unless you’re still good at football.
In the cases of Hardy and McDonald, it seems like coaches and media members want us to believe that this is about second chances. A writer for The Dallas Morning News went so far as to suggest that the Cowboys should be commended for signing Hardy, as if it was a benevolent act of charity.
Next thing you know, Hardy and McDonald are going to be on the football field making plays and you’re going to be reading about their redemption. How much they’ve overcome. How much they’ve been through. How much they have persevered.
What you won’t hear is the other side of the story—how the victims are doing. They will be swept under the rug, shoved into the past and reduced down to vague words like “mistake,” “incident” and “obstacle.”
I’d like to get more specific than that.
Last August, then-San Francisco 49er McDonald got into a fight with his pregnant fiancé, and in the process left what were reported as “visible injuries” on her neck and arms. She called 911. McDonald called a cop who was on the 49ers payroll. The district attorney’s office decided there wasn’t enough evidence to press charges.
In December, McDonald was investigated by police for rape after a woman said she was brought to McDonald’s house while dizzy and sick, fell and hit her hid and passed out, then woke up naked in bed with McDonald with no recollection of the night before. He at first told her they didn’t have sex, but later changed his story and said that they did. The case is still open, but charges have not been filed. McDonald was finally dropped from the 49ers roster after these allegations became public. He has stated that he intends to sue his accuser.
“His teammates spoke very highly of him, and you’re around teammates a lot in this business,” Bears coach John Fox said upon announcing the one-year deal with McDonald. “I think some of the issues that occurred quite frankly shocked his teammates.”
The details in the Hardy case are much more explicit. Last May, he and his girlfriend Nicole Holder were in a fight that was overheard by others in their apartment building. Here is an excerpt of Holder’s account:
In June, a judge in a bench trial ruled that Hardy was guilty of domestic violence. Hardy appealed that and awaited a jury trial in November, but by that time Holder was a no-show and the charges were dismissed. There are reports that Holder was paid off.
Hardy sat out all but one game for the Carolina Panthers last year on the commissioner’s exempt list. He was paid his full $13.1 million salary.
“He’s paid a terrific price,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said after his team signed Hardy to a one-year, incentive-heavy contract.
“We have spent a great deal of time over the last two days in meeting with Greg directly and gaining a solid understanding of what he is all about as a person and as a football player.”
Look, I believe in rehabilitation and fresh opportunities. I know that people can change. But real change takes humility, hard work, and a significant amount of time. Change begins with admitting your faults and confronting your demons, not suing them or paying them off.
And I know that a series of professional interviews over two days and a few phone calls to friends isn’t enough to tell if someone has truly changed.
Here’s what so many people, in the NFL and beyond, still don’t get: Abusers aren’t cartoon characters of an evil villain. They can be nice and considerate to their friends and colleagues, close to their family and good at their jobs and still be guilty of sexual assault or domestic violence.
Trust me, as a woman I wish that everyone who was capable of these crimes walked around with a dark mask on, snarling and snapping at everyone in their path. But it’s often exactly the opposite—abusers are frequently charming and social people who have the ability to compartmentalize their life and manipulate yours.
This is why it’s often so hard to believe that a person you feel like you know has committed such crimes. It’s also why I choose to believe victims.
There is not an epidemic of false accusations of sexual assault or domestic violence like so many would have you believe. In fact, the majority of victims stay silent because of how difficult it is to prove these crimes and how personally trying the process can be, often for no payoff. Accusing someone of sexual assault or domestic violence typically results in the accuser’s name being dragged through the mud as much as the accused.
NFL players aren’t unfairly singled out for allegations due to their money and fame. If that were the case, we’d be hearing many more accusations. There are 1,664 players on an active roster in the NFL at any given time during the season. Last year, there were four players accused of domestic abuse or sexual assault.
The NFL has a real chance here with Hardy and McDonald to prove that it’s serious when it says, “No More.” That doesn’t mean banning Hardy and McDonald from the league forever, but it does mean a league-wide commitment to the rehabilitation process, not just the redemption narrative.
It also means that the Cowboys and the Bears need to truly think about the message they’re sending by offering these players contracts when so many other teams passed them by.
I firmly believe in second chances. I just don’t believe that Hardy and McDonald have earned them yet.