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

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About Chelsea Cristene

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


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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”

  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:

    @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”

  7. John Schtoll says:

    Here is a link to the woozle effect

  8. 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.

  9. 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!


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

  2. […] 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 […]

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