The NFL and Domestic Violence

The Kansas City Chiefs hold a moment of silence for domestic violence victims on December 2, 2012 following teammate Jovan Belcher's murder-suicide.

The Kansas City Chiefs hold a moment of silence for domestic violence victims on December 2, 2012 following teammate Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide.

21 NFL teams carried at least one player with domestic violence or assault charges on their rosters during the 2012 season. Chelsea Cristene offers suggestions for what to do to change that.

Pittsburgh is a town that loves its sports. This is apparent on every flashing marquee, on the side of every bus, and in every restaurant—chain and independent alike. One night last spring, I caught sight of this love in the lobby of Patron, a Mexican restaurant in Pittsburgh’s North Hills suburbs, and lost myself in the autographed pictures hanging floor to ceiling of all the Steelers who have eaten there.

But I was also introduced to another kind of history. “This place was all over the news a few years ago,” my cousin told me as we slid into our booth. “Remember Cedrick Wilson? Receiver for the Steelers? He came in here and hit his ex-girlfriend in the face.”

A different story than the one told by those smiling photographs, for sure. Shortly after the assault, owner Dan Rooney issued the following statement: “The Steelers do not condone violence of any kind, especially against women,” and Wilson was cut from the team. Likewise, Steelers running back Chris Rainey was cut hours after chasing down his girlfriend and slapping her during an altercation in January 2013.

Other teams have demonstrated similar no tolerance policies—the Dolphins had no problem terminating Chad Johnson following domestic battery charges in 2012, and the Bengals’ release of Ahmad Brooks after he punched a woman in 2008 was highly speculated to be fueled by the team’s efforts “to rehabilitate their image.”

But consistency is key, and not all athletes and teams have been playing by the same set of rules. Ahmad Brooks was picked up by the 49ers shortly after his release by the Bengals—only to go on and assault a teammate this past July. Following a domestic abuse charge in 2011, Green Bay linebacker Erik Walden received little more than a slap on the wrist—a mere one-game suspension.

Linebacker James Harrison continued to play for the Steelers after agreeing to enter counseling following assault charges in 2008, sparking an underdog-overcoming-adversity spin that journalists like Harold Abend have given the story. Abend portrays Harrison as a sympathetic figure despite his long history of violent outbursts—“The bumps and bruises he has sustained on the gridiron…pale in comparison to what he has endured off the field”—as though James Harrison is a victim of unfortunate circumstance and not a habitual instigator responsible for his own conduct.


What do all of these violent incidents add up to? Two things.

1) Public outrage does not seem to amass until NFL violence escalates. We were shocked and horrified by the accusations surrounding Ray Lewis and, more recently, Aaron Hernandez. We were more than happy to weigh in on the Ben Rothlisberger rape allegations. And of course, there was the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide. Murder and suicide are horrific, but do not negate the terror living women (and men) experience at the hands of abusers.

One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Normalizing and downplaying these incidents (It’s the couple’s private business; we don’t know the whole story) must end. Period.

2) The NFL has garnered a reputation for being THE professional sports organization with THE domestic violence problem. Sure, domestic violence appears in other sports (NBA star Jason Kidd’s assault charges; wrestler Chris Benoit’s double murder and suicide), but given that 21 of 32 NFL teams carried at least one player with domestic violence or assault charges on their rosters during the 2012 season, the NFL is in a unique position, to, as Churchill once advised, “see the opportunity in every difficulty.”


Individual players are already seizing the opportunity to speak out. Cornerback Brandon Carr joined former Cowboys Emmitt Smith and Roger Staubach at a “Men Against Abuse” rally in Dallas last March. Ravens linebacker Chris Canty told USA TODAY Sports that “we’ve got to stop being silent about this,” after speaking at an April domestic violence awareness seminar in Baltimore. Canty’s teammate, defensive back Chris Johnson, is using his professional platform to share a very personal story: his sister, Jennifer, was shot and killed by her estranged boyfriend in December 2011. After taking in his sister’s two daughters to raise them as his own, Johnson now travels to various women’s shelters to promote awareness. And check out Giants quarterback Eli Manning’s participation alongside other professional athletes in the White House’s “1 is 2 Many” PSA, in case you missed it last summer.


As wonderful and necessary as this activism is, we need more of an impact from the NFL as a whole. I propose the following:

1) Tighten up the policy. The NFL must revise their current Personal Conduct Policy so that it is clear and consistent regarding domestic violence and assault matters. All teams in the league should be required to uphold this policy regardless of which current or potential players wind up in the hot seat—no high school athletic favoritism here. has already put the wheels in motion to petition Roger Goodell.

2) Start an official campaign. The NFL currently has no official campaign (Play 60) or initiative (breast cancer; going green) specifically targeting domestic violence. A league-wide campaign would unite the good work that many players are doing individually and inspire more activism in American communities. October is upon us, which means pink on hats and uniforms all over the field in support of breast cancer awareness. Wouldn’t it be great to see some purple for domestic violence awareness, too?

3) Partner up. Innumerable organizations have devoted themselves to raising domestic violence awareness. A partnership with the NFL could generate more volunteers, funding, and publicity, as it has for over 35 years with the United Way. Here are just a few of the groups and charities dedicated to domestic violence and related issues:

  • National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV)
  • Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN)
  • Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused (CASA, Inc.)
  • Futures Without Violence (FWV)
  • Men Against Domestic Violence (DVS)


I didn’t know about Cedrick Wilson’s assault until I sat down to eat at the very scene of the crime. I didn’t know about James Harrison’s violent history until after we won the Super Bowl in 2009—after I donned his jersey and cheered my team to victory.

There is a picture of 21-year-old me sitting on a dorm room futon, pulling on the number 92. A friend snapped it moments after Harrison’s glorious 100-yard touchdown return, and reviewing the excitement on my face makes me long for the days of a more successful franchise. When I finally read up on the linebacker’s off-the-field reputation weeks after the big game, I felt palpable disappointment, the chest drop every fan feels when our biggest heroes let us down. I wanted to support my Steelers, but I did not want to support an abuser.

Being both a woman and an owner of Ben Rothlisberger and James Harrison jerseys has created a strange and troubling kind of cognitive dissonance for me, something that I haven’t fully figured out how to deal with. Perhaps the NFL could help. By doing its part to tackle the problem of domestic violence, the NFL would be taking a crucial step toward getting everyone’s head back in the game.

Photo: AP/File

About Chelsea Cristene

Chelsea Cristene is a community college English and communications professor living in central Maryland. Follow her on Twitter @ChelseaCristene.


  1. Kudos, Chelsea! This is such a compelling piece. Thanks for shedding light on domestic violence, a national crisis.

    Saving Promise ( a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing domestic violence, kicked off its iPromise campaign this month, Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The iPromise campaign seeks to engage America in the promise for change by asking them to submit a personal promise via a video or written pledge AND sign a letter to President Obama asking that he join the promise for change and make domestice violence a national priority.

    We would love if you would take our pledge and encourage your readers to do the same!

  2. John Schtoll says:

    I wish I could edit entries, alas I can’t

    The OP uses the woozle to its full effect, The headline says we are going to have a talk about DV and the NFL but of course she adds in other types of violence which means her conclusions are based on various types of violence to indicate there is a problem that needs to be solved BUT all her solutions are ONLY to DV and not the other types of violence, of course the evidence she uses is citations to other ‘research’ that themselves are woozles and so forth.

  3. John Schtoll says:

    Here is a link to the woozle effect

  4. John Schtoll says:

    @John Anderson: I highly doubt the NFL has more of a problem than anyone else, BUT the DV industry has to have corporate sponsors in order to survive.

    The problem with the info presented here by the author is just a classic example of a woozle it just isn’t funny anymore. People just take this info at face value.

    BTW, Here is a nice little mental exercise for you, look on any major news site on any given day and see how many articles they have about DV and then also note how many people keep saying “DV is a hidden problem that no one is talking about”

  5. John Anderson says:

    Does the NFL have more of a DV problem than anyone else? Do UFC ring girls have a DV problem because one of them, Arianny Lopez (Celeste), was arrested for kicking her boyfriend in the face?

  6. John Schtoll says:

    What a classic example of a woozle being built.

    The headline “NFL and Domestic Violence”

    The meat of the article uses various type of violence some of which have nothing to do with DV, some of the meat are only accusations, some of which never resulted in charges, some of which resulted in acquitals.

    And of course the real woozle, links to other woozles , the 1 in 4 number which has been debunked time and time again, by so many people I have lost count.

    If we ever hope to defeat DV we have to stop building woozles around it, yes, I know there is a whole industry built up around DV that makes a ton of money but it is a real problem there is no need to pile on phony stats and include things that aren’t DV to make it look worse than it is.

    BTW, where is the “These stats are biased anyway because a spouse spends alot more time with the victim than a stranger”

  7. This problem needs to be addressed on the college and even the high school level. Addressing it on the pro level is way too late. It all begins with the attitude of giving school athletes preferential treatment and not holding them accountable for the way they treat others away from the game. I saw evidence of this attitude myself when I was in high school. Football coaches in the district had no problem with any of their players bullying other students. I dare say there have been instances of coverups across the country involving players who have committed rape. As we have seen just recently, Steubenville was an example of a coverup that failed. Were it not for Anonymous, it would have succeeded. By the way, the coverup is still taking place to protect the adults who tried to prevent justice from being carried out, as if the football program were far more important than anything else.

    No doubt I will make a lot of people mad by what I’m about to say, but so be it. Many of the fans seem to have a “Winning is everything” attitude, which means they’re really don’t care if their heroes engage in despicable or even criminal actions away from the game. (Witness the Glen Ridge scandal, for example.) School sports are sacred in this country; so, dishonorable conduct by individual players and even coaches away from the game will be ignored or even denied.

    Yes, there have been false accusations of rape; but I’m convinced there have been far more instances of rape committed by athletes in popular school sports that have never been tried or even reported. Besides, juries can always be packed with fans. A young woman who has been raped by one or more football players can expect to be victimized again by incredibly callous fans. The 16-year-old victim in the Steubenville case has received no support from the local community, but is still being vilified even to the point of receiving death threats, despite the guilty verdict. Media figures such as Poppy Harlow and Candy Crowley express more sympathy for the two convicted players than the victim, who will have to live with this trauma for the rest of her life. In the Penn State case, students rioted not because a pedophile coach had been raping young boys, but because their little god JoPa had just been fired. A Penn State coed whose brother was among the victims listened to classmates turn “Sandusky” into a verb, as if it were all a big joke. One of the victims was outed at his high school. A grandmother of one of the Penn State football players walked up to the boy’s mother and said, “Now my grandson’s football team is going to lose, and it’s all your son’s fault!” Instead of receiving sympathy from his classmates, the victim was bullied by fans of Joe Paterno so much that he had to drop out of school, despite the fact that he was a senior about to graduate. Absolutely pathetic! No wonder I’m not a fan! Dogs seem to get more sympathy from football fans than human beings!

    What’s to be done about it? The sports media as a whole needs to start functioning as a journalistic institution instead of as a propaganda mill intent upon turning everyone into a sports fan. That means they need to do investigative reporting and expose scandals of this sort. (There certainly was no investigative reporting of Notre Dame in 1974!) More than a few coaches (not to mention many of the fans and the boosters) need to make it abundantly clear that playing on a team is not a right, but a privilege. Coaches who clearly have no problem with athletes taking advantage of their exalted social position to abuse or harm others should be exposed and fired. “Jock privilege” must end. At least for the reason of eliminating its corrupting influence on school sports. (But fat chance that will ever happen!) It’s way too late to deal with this problem on the pro level. Way too late.

    • Bill, so well said. Fantastic points.

    • Joanna Schroeder says:

      Bill, great comment.

    • Chelsea Cristene says:

      Bill — thanks for all of those great points. I’m actually slated to take on Stubenville in another piece, so please stay tuned. 🙂

    • Anonymous says:

      I am a domestic violence survivor! My name is Michelle my ex boyfriend hit me for the last time and did the worst damage August 2011. I have Traumatic brain injury I get confuses easily frustrated then upset angry because I’m not able to think clearly and figure things out that use to be so easy and normal I have two bulged disks in my back spine trouble nerve damage to entire left side pinched nerve in left ankle loss of my balance loss of taste numbness and tingling in mouth when I chew numbness and tingling in left arm below my elbow down to my fingers same in my left leg from knee to my toes loss of fine motor skills in left hand it’s hard to walk but at least I don’t have to use a walker anymore I had to learn to walk all over again when I came home I had to use a walker my daughter were trying to get ahold of me I wasn’t answering my phone the ex boyfriend broke the bathroom door badly with my head he knocked me unconscious gave me a concussion left me on the floor where I fell I had a king size 4 poster bed he broke the door posters off don’t know why I can only assume he hit me with those because of all the damage to my body he has told me this because I don’t remember anything 2-3 weeks are missing I don’t remember anything my counselor tells me it’s our brains way of protecting us he said he picked me up off the floor the next morning put me on the couch I wet myself he went to work and left me there when he came home I was still there so he put me on my bed. After a couple days my youngest daughter came over pushed her way in made Matt take me to the hospital they wanted to admit me but Matt said I’m taking her home they did an MRI came back normal but my daughter said it was quite obvious I wasn’t normal and Matt wouldn’t leave me at the hospital my daughter at that time was 20 he took me home in a few days when my other two daughters were off from work they came over pushed there way past Matt at the door they asked him where I was he said upstairs sleeping up the stair they came found me in bed laying in my own mess I wasn’t coherent I couldn’t walk my daughters took me to the hospital I was there for a week I wanted to go home but they wouldn’t let me leave because I didn’t know what state I lived in we moved here from Arizona in 1999 I thought we lived Arizona finally I got it right my daughters kept telling me we live in Nevada I remember none of this it’s what I’m told so my oldest daughter and her boyfriend take me home with them after a week or so I wanted to go home I knew nothing I don’t remember any of this my daughter kept telling me Matt did this to me I was mad and angry because I wanted to go home I was being mean and bratty so reluctantly they take me home Matt had been out of town working if my daughters wouldn’t have came and found me I’m sure Matt would have left me at home and I would have died my daughters saved my life my daughters gave me a second chance at life I have put my daughters through more than a mother should ever do to her children I get confused easily and frustrated and Mad because I’m frustrated and confused I didn’t mean to but I’m different now I’m not the mom they use to have I stayed with Matt for 6 months my daughters gave me tough love which I needed they wouldn’t see me because I went back I didn’t understand at first I had physical therapy at the house one of the ladies Suzanne we would walk with my walker at that time we talked a lot she knew what had happened to me saw the door my bed my daughters called the police and they came to the hospital and took the report I told them Matt slammed my head then I said I think I fell I don’t want to press charges Suzanne call Loretta she worked with battered woman she is my counselor now from safe nest for battered woman if it wasn’t for Suzanne calling Loretta and telling her I need help I wouldn’t have got out I wouldn’t have know there was help if it wasn’t for Suzanne calling Loretta I might have stayed with Matt he kept telling me if you don’t press charges against me I’ll take care of you I’m sorry it’ll never happen again I love you he just kept telling me don’t press charges and I’ll take care of you I went back to work I was a house keeper for a Wonderful woman she had a 10,000 sft house she let me go because of Matt didn’t want anything to do with Matt was afraid me might come around I had my own apartment collected unemployment I’m hurt bad and working for her was very hard on my body and I know I didn’t do as good of job as I use to June 2013 I filed for disability I still have all the same symptoms as listed above I got denied disability the first time I do qualify for Medicaid thank goodness I see a neurologist every 4 weeks I have an attorney now for disability it will be another year before I know anything my brother helps me but has his own family and home my ex husband has helped me all my savings is gone I have nowhere to go no money I don’t even have my health no I emailed the mayors office and finally somebody had contacted me I have a meetingJuly 17 to try and get some financial aid because disability takes sooo long and denied me the first time one the year was up to press charges Matt was done with me I couldn’t sue him he owned nothing at the time he has since bought a house he has a good like nothing on his record me on the other hand he destroyed my life I have nothing anymore not even my health domestic violence is swept under the rug like it doesn’t happen survivors need help we all need to know where to get help how to get help we need to know there is help before it’s to late we need to educate young ladies there should be financial help so woman don’t feel trapped I am telling my story in hopes to save someone in hopes that there will become financial help to bring awareness that domestic violence is a problem a very big problem. my daughters are my heros!!! I don’t want any children to have to go through what I put my daughters through
      if I don’t get financial help to pay my rent for August I will be homeless my daughters all have roommates and leases I don’t drive so I don’t even have a car to live in Salvation Army contacted me went I sent an email to the mayors office this is exactly why woman like me stay in these very dangerous situations yes I got out but I may be homeless disability is a joke police dropped the ball nobody was looking out for the victims best interest and still where is the help, Michelle Lewis

  8. wellokaythen says:

    P.S. I’d also like to see any NFL-sponsored DV awareness campaign dedicate even just a little attention to male victims of domestic violence. Players should be given resources so they or men they know can find help if they are victims of domestic violence. Maybe the NFL could have helped save Steve McNair.

  9. wellokaythen says:

    At the risk of being called, well, some sort of apologist, I have to point out that there is a real difference between a charge and a conviction.

    This is not meant to disparage the work of dedicated law enforcement personnel or call into question anyone in particular, but even with domestic violence charges the accused is innocent until proven guilty through due process. (Or if the accused confesses.) A charge, even an arrest for something, is not proof, and it is not guilt. Teams might have the right to suspend someone because a player’s current legal problems distract from his job, but the suspension should not be punishment for what he was accused of doing.

    I know it’s easy to assume that big, supposedly “hypermasculine” men who play a violent sport for a living are more likely to engage in partner violence, but we should not immediately assume they are guilty of everything they are charged with.

    That being said, it would be good for the league to take some more active steps, for example have more options for players who know they have psychological problems. There’s nothing wrong with discouraging people from being violent in their personal lives. But, cracking down harder on people who are accused of something, but not convicted of it, is going too far.


  1. […] dominated sports from the high school to the professional level) – there is a long history of domestic violence, rape, the glorification of the masculine and objectification of the feminine, rampant homophobia, […]

  2. […] wrote a piece for GMP last month on domestic violence in the NFL, working from the statistic that 21 out of 32 teams carried at least one player with DV charges on […]

  3. […] pointed out by Chesea Cristene of Good Men Project, twenty-one of the thirty-two NFL franchises carried at least one player on their roster with a […]

  4. […] Men Against Domestic Violence (DVS) […]

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