Opinion writer

The unfolding debate over how the National Football League handles domestic violence involving its players, spurred by the disastrous approach to an incident in which former Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice knocked his then-fianceé, Janay Palmer, unconscious in a casino elevator, has raised any number of important issues. Are NFL players in particular need of interventions to prevent domestic violence? What are the appropriate penalties for the employers of high-profile athletes to hand down in domestic violence cases, even when charges are not filed or a player is acquitted?

I am all for debating these issues, but I wonder if the conversation might benefit from something of a change in framework. Rather than thinking of domestic violence policy as something the NFL should be forced to improve against its interests, we should talk instead about what the NFL and its players have to gain from a serious program of domestic violence prevention.

It is true that NFL players are arrested at a lower rate than men of the same ages in the general population, and that the number of arrests of NFL players is falling. But a sharp-eyed analysis earlier this year from Benjamin Morris at FiveThirtyEight pointed out that the lower arrest rate overall does not mean that the league does not have a domestic violence problem.

“Domestic violence accounts for 48 percent of arrests for violent crimes among NFL players, compared to our estimated 21 percent nationally,” Morris wrote. “Moreover, relative to the income level (top 1 percent) and poverty rate (0 percent) of NFL players, the domestic violence arrest rate is downright extraordinary.”

And as Justin Peters wrote at Slate in 2012 in response to the murder-suicide of the Kansas City Chiefs’ Jovan Belcher, who killed his girlfriend and then himself, there is an academic literature that suggests athletes are less likely to be convicted when they are arrested for crimes of sexual assault and domestic violence.

“In 1995, Maryann Hudson at the Los Angeles Times found that athletes charged with domestic violence were only convicted 36 percent of the time, compared with a 77 percent general conviction rate,” Peters wrote. “In a 2010 Harvard Law Review article, Bethany Withers wrote that ‘conviction rates for athletes are astonishingly low compared to the arrest statistics. Though there is evidence that the responsiveness of police and prosecution to sexual assault complaints involving athletes is favorable, there is an off-setting pro-athlete bias on the part of juries.'”

Whatever the arrest and conviction rates for players are, the NFL would still have an interest in continuing to reduce its’ players rates of domestic violence, if only to avoid losing them to suspensions, jail time, and the dreaded specter of “distractions.”

But those figures are what they are. The news coverage of NFL domestic violence incidents mean that huge audiences see spectacles like the Baltimore Ravens trying to make Janay Rice an equal party to an incident in which she was knocked unconscious. And conviction rates mean that the NFL risks acting as a high-profile argument that pursuing a criminal case against an abuser, particularly a rich and powerful one, is futile. The NFL could help itself as an institution, its players and its fans by stepping up.

There have been plenty of specific suggestions for how the NFL might try to make amends. Thursday Night Football has been dedicating pre-game segments to domestic violence issues. Writing in the New Republic, Jonathan Cohn argued that the league should start spending serious money on things like housing for families trying to leave violent situations and research that could shed more light on the causes and impacts of domestic violence. “This wouldn’t be charity,” he wrote. “This would be restitution.”

But Esta Soler, the president of Futures Without Violence, argues that even if the NFL wants to do outreach work, the league would need to bolster its own credibility to speak about domestic violence before trying to speak with any sort of authority on the subject.

Soler first began talking with the NFL when Deana Garner, the director of player security for the league, reached out to her last year. Soler met with Commissioner Roger Goodell and worked with the league on Goodell’s statement in which he admitted to misstepping in handing out only a two-game suspension to Rice for his attack on Janay Palmer.

“It’s important that the house is in order before you make public statements to the fans. You need to get your house in order so you have the authenticity to say we are taking this very, very seriously, we want you to take it very seriously as well,” she argued.”You cannot do a quick campaign here. This is something very deep and you need the full force of the leadership to embrace it and to take public stands in the stadium…First, do the workforce training, then engage young fans in having healthy relationships, and your final thing is the public statements to the fans. ”

If the NFL wants to reduce domestic violence among its players, punitive options aren’t the only solution, like the system of suspensions Goodell laid out in August. In his remarks then, Goodell suggested improving rookie orientation and outreach to players’ partners. Those both seem like good places to start.

In thinking about counseling, the NFL might consider implementing something like the Danger Assessment index developed by Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing professor Jacquelyn Campbell, which measures whether abusive relationships are at risk of escalating into homicide. And the league might think about how to support players like Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback William Gay, whose mother was killed by her abusive ex-boyfriend when Gay was seven.

Domestic violence is not just something the NFL should respond to because failing to do so has earned the league a lot of bad publicity, or because advertisers have started making noises about distancing themselves from the sport. Advocates and survivors are not the NFL’s enemies. Everyone can be on the same team, if the league is willing to start playing from that perspective.