This is What the NFL Teaches Rookies About Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, & Child Abuse

The NFL season kicks off tonight after what feels like a quiet offseason; the major stories in pro football have mostly come recently, with significant contract renewals and one high-profile retirement. The dreaded, euphemized “off-the-field” issues felt smaller, though perhaps that’s because it was a team owner facing charges of a salacious crime this time instead of a player. 

Regardless, a number of NFL players faced or are facing criminal charges of the worst sorts. Tyreek Hill, already bearing a history of domestic violence offenses, faced a child abuse investigation. Police charged Desmond Harrison with domestic violence shortly after Arizona picked up the offensive lineman. Giants safety Kamrin Moore is on the commissioner’s exempt list following accusations he punched a woman and stepped on her neck. Rookie linebacker Tyrel Dodson is also on the exempt list after a May arrest on domestic violence charges. Saints rookie Carl Granderson was reinstated this week after serving six months in jail for sexual assault.

The NFL, historically, has a lousy track record of dealing with these issues. That’s why it’s worth our time to investigate exactly how the NFL approaches the issues of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse with its new players during the offseason orientation period known as “Rookie Transition.” We’ve acquired the materials NFL representatives use during these training sessions, and will discuss them using a loose Extended Parallel Process Model framework.

The hour-long session on DV/SA/CA comes amidst a sequence of other modules in the Rookie Transition orientation; it’s preceded by a 45-minute module titled “Social Responsibility: DUI” (in which a MADD representative and local victim of drunk driving speaks to the players) and followed by another hour-long slideshow session titled “Enhancing Emotional Wellness.” Both those modules feature numerous pages of discussion materials, talking points, and other resources. The DV/SA/CA session, as it appears in the Rookie Transition teaching materials, consists of the sole page you see above, with a two-page handout from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Most of the session revolves around a 27-minute-long video originally recorded for the 2014 season—most likely in reaction to the Ray Rice scandal—and introduced by then-NFL Vice President of Wellness and Clinical Services Dwight Hollier. 

A short video featuring Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll follows this introduction. It features somewhat jarring editing choices. An edited portion follows:

If you think that sounds like a lot of words saying very little but to bolster the league’s reputation for social advocacy, you’re not alone. Hollier’s voiceover returns after the clip to acknowledge that “we’re here because of recent high-profile issues that have effected our league,” but that “we can really make a difference,” citing the league’s “Power of Pink” October breast cancer promotion—one that since Hollier recorded the video has been substantially scaled back, partially because of the league’s off-the-field issues.

Hollier continues over the slideshow, stating that the session will encourage players to “speak up and speak out” against these issues “that thrive in the darkness.” 

This is followed by a video featuring former Pro Bowl defensive lineman Joe Ehrmann, who in his post-playing career has become an urban minister and motivational speaker. It opens with intensity, before fading back to some more generic and stereotypical “turning boys into men” language. It’s edited in as odd a fashion as the Tomlin/Carroll portion.

The next slide in the presentation is accompanied by a new, female voice; she does not introduce herself, but I believe it is Deana Garner Smith, the NFL’s Director of Player Security. A series of slides follow, mostly discussed verbatim by the speaker.

The subsequent segment is a feature video on former Steelers player (now coach) William Gay, whose mother was killed by her ex-boyfriend when he was eight years old. It’s similar to this very powerful feature recorded in 2011. Gay is known for his advocacy and outreach on the topic of domestic violence, and his inclusion in the seminar is worthy. The NFL’s version, though, features Steelers owner Art Rooney II multiple times, and he doesn’t add much. This ends the domestic violence portion of the presentation, and brings Hollier back to talk about child abuse. 

Hollier brings up corporal punishment, and how “it is legal to use corporal means in all 50 states.” (Again, I believe this video was recorded in the summer of 2014—months before star Adrian Peterson was indicted on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child.

We have a unique opportunity to speak up on behalf of those who cannot do so themselves,” Hollier states, before the segment ends abruptly. In total, the NFL dedicates just one minute, 39 seconds to the discussion of child abuse with its rookie players.

The speaker I believe to be Deana Garner Smith returns. She discusses consent, explaining that “we are looking for a ‘yes’ throughout the entire encounter.” Players are urged to learn the age of consent in their state, before Hollier’s voice returns to provide a rule of thumb for consent: “A person who is incapable of operating a motor vehicle is incapable of consenting to sexual activity.” 

Hollier spends 30 seconds discussing the dangers of sexting, though only in the context that “you could find yourself in a sexual assault or child pornography situation.”

Another video featuring Ehrmann then plays, urging “men to call out other men.” It’s mostly back to the topic of domestic violence—accurately noting that far more women face violence inside their homes than outside of it—but again returns to the “this is what a real man does” trope.

After the short Ehrmann video ends, the speaker I believe to be Deana Garner Smith returns yet again with “So what can we do?”

The discussion of “what we can do” lasts less than 30 seconds. The presentation closes with links and phone numbers for the NFL Life Line, a confidential program launched in 2013 that hooks players up with counselors to help them through periods of crisis. 

Awkwardly tacked onto the end is a video based on Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson’s 2014 Player’s Tribune post about domestic violence. 

I included all of the video here because, frankly, I think it’s pretty good. The session closes with players being urged to provide non-confidential feedback.

Having looked at this portion of the NFL’s rookie orientation process, we can draw a few conclusions. First, the consistent focus is on the league itself—even in the strongest segment, with William Gay, the league pokes its head in to suggest it had a role in facilitating Gay’s coming forward to talk about the violence that killed his mother. Threat avoidance is repeatedly presented as a mission to keep players out of trouble, and thus avoid embarrassing their team or the league. Certainly, the materials provided here are only half the allotted time for the module; the other half is moderated by a team representative and is dedicated to discussing the four following questions:

  1. How can we reframe our thinking so that we don’t ask DV or SA survivor questions like “why didn’t you just leave?” or “what were you wearing?”
  2. How can we get our friends, families and society to start to place the actual blame on those perpetuating the DV or SA rather than the victim?
  3. What one thing did you hear today that you did not know before and plan to share with someone important to you? Why did it impact you that way?
  4. What action would you take now as a bystander to DV, SA or CA that you might not have before today?

These are decent discussion questions, but the league presents this portion of the “Rookie Transition” as one that’s going to challenge and confront them and it doesn’t seem like it ever delivers; rather than identifying the threats of committing violence, the session consistently places its audience as third parties to the crimes (with the exception of the very short “how not to commit sexual assault” portion).

This fails our analysis via the EPPM; the model informs us that in order for any public health campaign to succeed, it must establish the likelihood of a threat, that that threat is sufficiently harmful, that the audience has the ability to act on the threat, and that the prescribed action will eliminate the threat. It goes on to explain that establishing the threat without an equal amount of emphasis on the efficacy of the recommended behavior can result in the audience instead finding ways to deal with their fear, rather than with the threat itself.

The NFL’s seminar on DV/SA/CA illustrates the prevalence of violence against women and children very well, but could go a lot further in encouraging discussion of more real-life scenarios and specific behaviors that could mitigate them. In general, it’s all very vague; even the discussion questions don’t confront the actual factors that lead to violence—or the violence itself—but instead how to deal with the aftermath. That’s not a reliable way to reduce violent behaviors.