Pro Sports Leagues Tell Senate Panel They're Working on Domestic Violence Problems

WASHINGTON – A Senate committee prevailed upon executives representing the nation’s major sports leagues to assume a more active role in preventing domestic violence involving their athletes, citing a recent spate of incidents that has thrown a spotlight on the problem.

Republicans and Democrats alike on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee asserted that none of the professional leagues are paying enough attention to the problem and that they aren’t taking the issue seriously enough – Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) noted that the commissioners of the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball sent representatives instead of appearing personally before the panel.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), the committee chairman, said he called the hearing because “all of the professional sports leagues represented here today have a problem with athletes or employees who have committed violent, criminal acts.”

Until recently, he said, “the leagues’ records have not been very good,” citing a long list of players “who have been charged with, and in some cases convicted of, domestic violence, and the leagues have done little to nothing in response. In fact, the press has reported that a culture of silence within the leagues often prevents victims from reporting their abuse to law enforcement. This has to change.”

League representatives acknowledged that they have fallen short on policing their athletes in the past but assured the committee that steps are being taken to address the problem.

Troy Vincent, a former cornerback for the Miami Dolphins and several other teams who now serves as an executive vice president with the NFL, fought back tears during his testimony citing his own experience with domestic violence watching as a child as his mother was beaten.

“We saw how she struggled to seek help and find the courage to say, ‘No more,’” Vincent told the committee. “The fear and complexities accompanying this violence remain very real in my life today.”

The NFL, he acknowledged, has “made mistakes” in developing and carrying out a domestic abuse policy.

“We’ve been humbled,” he said. “We accept the criticism we’ve received and we’re committed to being part of the solution. We’ll get this right.”

Most of the attention on domestic violence within pro sports has been focused on the NFL. First came the case of Ray Rice, a former running back with the Baltimore Ravens, who punched his fiancé, now wife, in an elevator at an Atlantic City hotel, knocking her cold. The incident initially drew a two-game suspension, which was roundly criticized as too lenient. Commissioner Roger Goodell extended that suspension based, he said, on further evidence, but that decision was subsequently overturned via arbitration.

Then there was the case of Adrian Peterson, the star running back for the Minnesota Vikings who faced criminal charges for beating one of his children with a switch, causing lacerations and bleeding. Peterson pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor and has been suspended by Goodell for the remainder of the season. That decision is under appeal.

Thune characterized the NFL’s response to the incidents as “completely inadequate,” adding that the league “sent a mixed message to millions of fans and the general public about how it handles such acts of violence.”

But Thune also asserted that the problem of domestic violence isn’t limited to the field of athletics.

“Statistics indicate that this brand of violence extends well beyond what is covered by the tabloids and sports media,” he said. “According to the Department of Justice, there are approximately 960,000 reported cases of domestic violence each year. Eighty-five percent of the victims are females and 25 percent of women experience domestic violence in their lifetime.”

Joe Torre, the Hall of Fame former manager of the New York Yankees, now the executive vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball, acknowledged that, like Vincent, he is “a person whose childhood was touched by domestic violence” who has “come to understand that discussing the issue publicly has the potential to help millions of victims who believe that they must suffer in silence.”

Torre said that in 2002 he and his wife Ali formed the Safe at Home Foundation to create educational programs aimed at ending the cycle of domestic violence.

“I consider it one of my proudest accomplishments in my career,” he said.

Baseball, Torre said, is developing a policy to address domestic violence and sexual assault that could be implemented prior to the 2015 season. Since September Major League representatives have met with more than a dozen organizations focused on addressing domestic violence and violence against women.

“Representatives from those groups consistently told us that while they were obviously unsettled by the recent incidents of domestic violence in professional sports, they believe that those incidents have shined a light on an issue often in the shadows,” he said. “They believe, and we agree, that sports leagues can make a difference.”

Michele Roberts, executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, told the committee that domestic violence “is a topic that our players recognized needed to be addressed long before the events of recent months, when the public’s attention has turned so intently on the subject.”

“Recent events have given us an opportunity to re-examine and strengthen the already comprehensive scheme the NBA and NBPA had in place, and add even more safeguards with a focus on prevention and counseling,” Roberts said. “We want to make sure that every player, wife, girlfriend, and family member has a safe environment to seek help without fear of retaliation or additional harm. And in doing so, our recent efforts have brought together representatives of all members of the NBA family in an unprecedented fashion."

"We also want to lead by example and help create the kind of awareness and attention that this prevalent and society-wide problem deserves.”