A tearful NFL official pledged to lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Tuesday that the league was taking seriously the recent domestic violence cases that have tarnished its image and led to questions about whether it has created a culture that tolerates such behavior.
The NFL is revising its conduct policy and completing mandatory training for coaches, owners and players over the next two weeks on preventing domestic violence and child and sexual abuse, said Executive Vice President Troy Vincent, who also described growing up in a household where his mother was beaten.
"The vast majority of our players are terrific husbands, fathers and men," Vincent said, often struggling to hold back tears. "The players know that standards and integrity are not labor issues or management issues — they are issues that concern everyone in our game."
Senate Commerce Committee members challenged that assertion, accusing the four major sports leagues of allowing a "culture of silence" to fester and saying the leagues have sent ambiguous messages to fans by delaying responses to abuse allegations or by administering slap-on-the-wrist penalties.
"The problem of domestic violence is not a problem unique to the NFL," said committee Chairman Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.). "All of the professional sports leagues represented here today have a problem with employees who have committed violent criminal acts."
Still, the most glaring example was the two-game suspension initially given to Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice after he was accused this year of beating the woman who became his wife. After a tape emerged showing Rice knocking her unconscious, the NFL suspended him indefinitely.
Following the Rice case and the yearlong suspension of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who hit his 4-year-old son with a tree switch, the NFL is setting "clear rules" for discipline in time for the Super Bowl in February, Vincent said. The league was also training teams of human resources, security and social services experts to respond to abuse cases with medical and legal support for accusers, he noted.
The NFL players union said Rice's case was an indication that disciplinary standards, which the league alone determines, were arbitrary and did not stand up to scrutiny.
Last week, an arbitrator found that that Rice was punished twice for the same offense. The league agreed to overturn his suspension.
Disciplinary hearings should be a process negotiated with the players union, said Teri Patterson of the NFL Players Assn. To that end, she said, the union is establishing a commission to advise league officials on domestic violence prevention. Its members include retired player Steve Stenstrom and former White House counsel Kathy Ruemmler.
"Unfortunately, we've seen many instances of discipline implemented unilaterally by the NFL," Patterson said. "The process is often mismanaged and not able to withstand outside review."
Lawmakers said they were concerned that union officials were putting collective bargaining and other labor issues before the safety of players' families.
"I'm trying to get to the point as to whether or not the association is saying it's OK to knock out a woman with one punch on Wednesday and still suit up for a game on Sunday," Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) said.
"What we think is inappropriate is inconsistent and unfair handling" of disciplinary cases, Patterson replied.
League executives and union representatives from other sports also reiterated their commitment to pushing back against domestic violence among their players, including in upcoming collective bargaining.
Major League Baseball executive and former Yankees Manager Joe Torre, who earlier in his career formed a charity to raise awareness of domestic violence, said the league was developing a policy on domestic abuse cases that is intended to be enacted before next season. He said that MLB planned league-wide awareness training and that officials would ask for expanded disciplinary power for the commissioner before the next collective bargaining session with the players union, in 2016.
"We recognize the clear public expectation for the professional sports leagues to be leaders in addressing this social ill," Torre said.
Representatives from the NBA and NHL and their players unions also pledged to emphasize domestic violence awareness. NBA union officials said players already receive such training at least one year before they join the basketball league. NHL officials said they met with players annually to discuss conduct.
Although leagues are privately run, they get some legal protections and tax benefits. The NFL, for example, is exempt from antitrust law and has tax-exempt status as a nonprofit trade organization.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) reiterated his objection to the tax exemptions during the hearing. He is supporting legislation that would strip the NFL of its tax benefits and argued that the league could be contributing more money to domestic violence prevention.
"I have to justify to my constituents why the NFL, this multibillion-dollar organization, has tax-exempt status," he said.