NFL Looks To Training To Prevent Domestic Violence By Players

NFL Looks To Training To Prevent Domestic Violence By Players

9:14am Sep 24, 2014
No amount of training can undo the violence someone experienced at home as a child, but it can help break the cycle.
No amount of training can undo the violence someone experienced at home as a child, but it can help break the cycle.
Pamela Albin Moore / iStockphoto

On Friday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell broke a week of silence following the release of a video that showed former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice assaulting his then-fiancee.

Goodell apologized for his role in the NFL's handling of the matter.

He also vowed that the NFL will mandate trainings on preventing abuse for all players and staff. What the trainings will entail remains to be seen. But researchers say that to truly cut back on violence among players, the NFL should address at least one major risk factor: a culture of acceptance in professional sports.

Of course, the type of people who engage in domestic violence is disturbingly diverse — some accountants, judges, even clergymen hit their partners.

But lately the question has been: Why the NFL? Especially when the vast majority of NFL players will never abuse their wives or beat their children.

"Football is not even the most violent sport," says Richard Gelles, a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania. "Why aren't we hearing about wrestlers or boxers? You know the old joke: 'I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.' "

Gelles has been studying domestic violence since the 1970s. He has done a lot of research on sports, but he also has looked into family violence among members of the military: combat infantry soldiers, trained to kill an enemy.

The U.S. Army brought in Gelles to conduct an internal study in the 1990s. It wanted to find out if men trained to kill were more likely to beat their wives or hit their kids. Gelles found that rates of domestic violence in the Army were slightly higher than in the general population. "But the most startling finding was that the highest rate of domestic violence in the Unites States Army was not [in] combat infantry or Special Forces," he says. "It was those people who worked in supply."

"Supply" — as in ordering things and receiving them. Restocking for missions.

"So the training of people to be violent, and violence as part of your work culture, is not a sufficient explanation for what's going on in the NFL," Gelles says.

It's challenging to measure rates of domestic violence, because most incidents are not reported to the police, or anyone else; but Gelles is not convinced that rates in the NFL are significantly higher than in the general population.

He also notes that, even when aggression is the goal, it's quite difficult to train people to be violent: "In World War II, only about 30 percent of combat infantry actually fired their weapons."

So where do people who abuse their partners and children learn the behavior? How far-reaching should these NFL trainings be?

Rowell Huesmann, a psychologist at the University of Michigan, has spent his career trying to figure out what makes some people violent. Much of his research points to childhood experiences.

"Children are great imitators," Huesmann says. Children who grow up with physical abuse and domestic violence are learning that "this is a way you deal with other people when you want to make them bend to your will," he says. "You hit them."

Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings running back recently indicted by a grand jury on a child abuse charge for his method of disciplining his son, says his own father whipped him as a child. Peterson even chose the same instrument his father used to discipline him: a switch cut from a tree.

No NFL training can change what players experienced as children. But that sort of education can address the biggest risk factor for committing acts of violence: having committed such an act before. Researchers say it's much easier to be violent if you're getting a message that violence is acceptable. The NFL has, at least indirectly, and until very recently, been sending that message for decades.

It doesn't just reach players, says Jackson Katz, a violence prevention educator. It trickles down to fans — even the youngest ones.

"Millions of boys across the United States have big posters of football players on their wall," says Katz. "You can bet that they know what's going on here."

Katz works with NFL players in a program called MVP, Mentors in Violence Prevention — a training program that's just the sort Goodell promised Friday to mandate for all NFL players. (In August, NPR reported on MVP and how it's used with high school boys to prevent sexual assault.)

Katz has trained players in the NFL for almost 15 years. But, except for consistent work with one team, the New England Patriots, he's been brought in only occasionally, he says.

"It's never been systematic in the NFL," Katz says. "We've argued for years that we could do so much more if they wanted us, and wanted to make it happen."

He hasn't gotten a call from the NFL about the new mandate. But in order to make a difference in players' behavior, he says, the trainings will have to go beyond a one-shot presentation.

"What we're talking about here is culture change," Katz says. "We're talking about setting a tone where abusive behavior is seen as completely unacceptable."

In the meantime, Richard Gelles says that even the delayed reaction to Ray Rice's abusive behavior is progress.

This year, Gelles says, "is the first time that I have seen a professional athlete really rung up and sanctioned for domestic violence."

Gelles can rattle off a long list of baseball players, basketball players and football players who were not arrested, and who were allowed to keep playing, even after particularly brutal assaults of their wives and girlfriends.

But he suspects those days in professional sports might be coming to an end, because "what has been private is now becoming public," he says, in the form of YouTube videos and the cascade of public opinion that follows.

That's something institutions like the NFL can no longer ignore.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You could be forgiven, in recent weeks, for asking what is it with pro football and domestic abuse. A video showing Baltimore player Ray Rice beating his fiancée was just one of several incidents. And on Friday, League Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted he did not handle Rice's case very well.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROGER GOODELL: I got it wrong on a number of levels, from the process that I lead to the decision that I reached.

INSKEEP: Goodell says the NFL will now mandate training on preventing domestic abuse, which calls for the league to define the problem. Experts say it is not necessarily the violent nature of the sport that lead some players to be violent off the field. What is key is an overall culture of acceptance. NPR's Laura Starecheski reports.

LAURA STARECHESKI, BYLINE: Domestic violence is disturbingly diverse behavior. Accountants, judges, even clergymen hit their partners. But lately, the question has been why the NFL; especially when the vast majority of NFL players will never abuse their wives, or beat their children.

RICHARD GELLES: Football is not even the most violent sport. Why aren't we hearing about wrestlers or boxers or hockey players? You know the old joke about I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.

STARECHESKI: Richard Gelles is a professor of social policy at the University of Pennsylvania. He's been researching domestic violence since the 1970s. He's done a lot in sports, but he's also looked into family violence and - the most violent and aggressive occupation there is - combat infantry soldiers, trained to kill an enemy.

GELLES: Looking at the military, they were very worried - when you train people to kill - that the point of the spear would end up being pointed at families.

STARECHESKI: Gelles was brought in to find out if men trained to kill were more likely to beat their wives or hit their kids. He did find that rates of domestic violence in the Army were slightly higher than in the general population.

GELLES: But the most startling finding was that the highest rate of domestic violence in the United States Army was not combat infantry, or Special Forces. It actually was those people who work in supply.

STARECHESKI: Supply - ordering things, receiving them - not the men on the front lines with guns.

GELLES: So the training of people to be violent - and violence is part of your work culture - is not a sufficient explanation for what's going on in the NFL.

STARECHESKI: Gelles says it's actually really hard to train people to be violent. In World War II, only about 30 percent of infantrymen actually fired their weapons. So where do people, who abuse partners and children, learn the behavior? How far should these NFL trainings go to make a difference?

ROWELL HUESMANN: Children who are more harshly punished and beaten, tend to grow up to be more aggressive and violent.

STARECHESKI: Rowell Huesmann is a psychologist at the University of Michigan, who spent his career trying to figure out what makes some people violent.

HUESMANN: Children are great imitators and they're learning - as they're being hit - that this is a way you deal with other people when you want to make them bend to your will - you hit them.

STARECHESKI: Adrian Peterson, the Vikings running back, says his father whipped him as a child. Peterson even chose the same instrument his father used to discipline his own son - a switch cut from a tree. No NFL training can change what players experience as children, but it might help break a cycle of violence from one generation to the next. A shorter-term goal would be addressing the biggest risk factor of all for committing acts of violence - having committed violence before. Researchers say getting started is more likely when you get a message that violence is acceptable. Until very recently, that's the message the NFL has sent.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACKSON KATZ: You know, millions of boys around the United States have big posters of football players on their wall and they follow the teams. And you can bet that they know what's going on here. They know that this is a scandal.

STARECHESKI: Jackson Katz works with NFL players in a program called MVP, Mentors in Violence Prevention. A training program just like what commissioner Goodell promised to mandate for all NFL players. Katz has worked with the NFL for almost 15 years. But he's only been brought in occasionally.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATZ: It's never been systematic in the NFL. And we've argued for years that we could do so much more if they wanted us, and if they wanted to make it happen.

STARECHESKI: Katz hasn't gotten a call from the NFL yet about the new mandate. But in order to make a difference in players' behavior, he says the trainings will have to go beyond a one-shot presentation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATZ: What we're talking really about here is culture change. We're talking about setting a tone where abusive behavior is seen as completely unacceptable.

STARECHESKI: In the meantime, violence researcher Richard Gelles says that even the delayed reaction to Ray Rice's abuse is progress.

GELLES: 2014 is the first time I have seen a professional athlete really rung up and sanctioned for domestic violence.

STARECHESKI: Gelles reeled off a long list for me of baseball players, basketball players and football players who were not arrested. And who were allowed to keep playing, even after particularly brutal assaults of their wives and girlfriends.

GELLES: Now, what has been private is now becoming public.

STARECHESKI: In the form of YouTube videos - and the cascade of public opinion that follows - something institutions like the NFL can no longer ignore. Laura Starecheski, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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