The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For battered NFL wives, a message from the cops and the league: Keep quiet

Two women narrate their ordeals. “You will hear of a wife murdered before you hear another one come forward.”

(Alex Nabaum for The Washington Post)

Whenever Dewan Smith-Williams sees Janay Rice on television, she feels like she’s looking into a mirror. Smith-Williams, 44, remembers the denial, the secrecy, the sense of isolation, the shame. But most of all, she remembers the fear of ruining her husband’s career as a National Football League player — the feeling that coming forth, or seeking justice, would destroy her four children’s financial security. She understands that struggle not only because she, too, was a domestic-violence victim, but because she watched so many other NFL wives, many of them her friends, go through the same nightmare. For each of them, it began with their husbands’ attacks and worsened with a culture that, they felt, compelled silence.

“We’ve told agents about it, called the NFL Players Association when things were really, really bad,” Smith-Williams recalls. “They would say, ‘Oh, we’re really sorry that you are going through this. We’ll look into it.’ But you never heard back. There’s no one available for the wives.”

She and another former NFL wife describe an insular and intensely secretive organization, where loyalty extends only in one direction – everyone protects the NFL brand, but the NFL protects its own interests over everything else. The culture is passed down more by example than diktat. Wives new to the league watch older ones suffer from abuse in silence, and they mimic the behavior. Often, wives and girlfriends confide in each other, but when they do, their advice is to stay quiet, say the two women, one of whom declined to let her name be printed because her ex-husband is still associated with the league.

It’s counterintuitive to the outside world: Women should leave their abusers, and their abusers should be punished. But the NFL is a unique universe with an overwhelmingly male workforce whose members are lionized in the press and in their communities; a we’re-all-in-this-together ethos; and incentives for the managers, coaches, and union reps to keep negative stories under wraps. Going to authorities, whether police or hospitals, means social exclusion and, more importantly, negative media attention that could end your husband’s career. Justice imperils their belonging and their livelihood.

The wives, whose husbands ended their playing careers in the 2000s, say they knew of no safe alternative — no liaison to players’ families, no counselor, and no procedure for reporting abuse. In fact, the league rarely communicates with wives at all, on issues serious or benign, even though a great number of them don’t work and are dependent on their husbands, they say. The NFL did not answer several requests for comment about league culture or how officials interact with players’ wives. Teri Patterson, deputy managing director and special counsel to the NFL Players Association, says her organization beefed up its communication with wives after she arrived in 2009. The NFLPA now holds meetings for players and their wives in 10 cities each year, plus up to five others at special events like the Super Bowl. (There are 32 teams in the league, meaning only one-third of them have access to the sessions each year.)

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, just one-quarter of the 1.3 million American women assaulted by an intimate partner each year report the attacks to the police. But the two wives interviewed for this article claimed the rate of reporting among NFL wives and girlfriends is much lower. They say the league has built a tight-knit culture, similar to a fraternity, with entrenched hierarchies and a fierce sense of loyalty among members. “You get brainwashed. It’s so ingrained that you protect the player, you just stay quiet. You learn your role is to be the supportive NFL wife,” says one of them, the onetime wife of a Saints player who asked to speak anonymously because her now ex-husband is still associated with the league. Otherwise, she says, “You’d cost him his job.”

For that reason, few of them have felt comfortable telling their stories in the press. But the example of Janay Rice moved two of them to describe what they had gone through and what they had seen — namely, the way they thought the NFL, the NFLPA, and local law enforcement abandoned them after their husbands’ abuse. Since they began telling The Washington Post their stories, they also spoke with other NFL wives who went through similar situations but didn’t want to come forward, they say. These accounts help explain why.

*        *        *

During the decade when her husband, offensive lineman Wally Williams, played in the league, Smith-Williams says that the overwhelming majority of the NFL wives she talked to quietly suffered from some kind of spousal abuse. One showed up on her porch barefoot and crying one night. Others came to indoor team events in sunglasses. Other times, they opened up to her and other wives in the league about their experiences with domestic abuse. But as in any tight-knit organization, players’ family lives rarely stayed private, she says. Coaches and general managers didn’t need to be told directly to know which players were having trouble at home.

Yet they habitually overlooked the league’s systemic domestic abuse problem, she says, an experience in line with the story former Chicago Bears General Manager Jerry Angelo described to USA Today last week, when he told a reporter that teams failed to punish players in “hundreds and hundreds” of domestic-violence episodes during his three-decade-long career. Later, he took back his comments after others in the league criticized him. (USA Today has not retracted the story.)

In rare cases when women did muster the courage to notify law enforcement, police officers appeared to tolerate players’ bad behavior. “When the cops would come, they just said we needed some time apart, and they would talk to [Wally] about football,” Smith-Williams recalls. “The police tell you, ‘You don’t want this in the news.’ I have things that happened in my life that there is no record of.”

Wally Williams denied the domestic-abuse allegations in this story and declined to comment on any specific claims.

Smith-Williams, who now lives separately from her husband but is still married to him, says she was pushed, grabbed and held by the throat early in her tumultuous 16-year marriage to Williams. During that time, the NFL was a constant presence in their lives, and she received clear messages from the head coach not to air the league’s dirty laundry — even to the cops.

In 2001, two years before Williams retired from the sport, police responded to an alarm at their empty New Orleans-area home and found marijuana on a table. Head Coach Jim Haslett, who lived in the neighborhood, heard about the incident and left a note at their home warning them to call him before talking to anyone else. Haslett, the most important authority figure in their lives, later met them at their home and told them to keep quiet, Smith-Williams says. She says she originally offered to take the fall and tell authorities the marijuana was hers, to protect Wally’s public image and career. Haslett told her it wouldn’t work. “He said, ‘They don’t want you. They want him,’” she recalls. “He said, ‘Don’t talk to the media. Don’t talk to the police. We will handle it.” It was a message that would stay with her.

Soon after, an attorney for the league contacted the couple to tell them Wally would be arrested. Smith-Williams says she doesn’t know what happened behind the scenes after he posted bail, but ultimately, her husband was never charged. The NFL put him under supervision and assigned him a liaison to help him stay out of trouble.

The Saints declined to comment on the incident, and Haslett, who is now defensive coordinator for the Washington Redskins, did not return calls or e-mails for comment.

The next year, during his final season, Williams tested positive for marijuana use and received a four-game suspension. So when Smith-Williams found marijuana in their Baltimore home, she confronted her husband about it. He stormed through their Baltimore house with a baseball bat, hitting doors, chairs and pictures while threatening her, she says. But after Coach Haslett’s warning the previous year, she chose not to call the cops. Instead, she rang the NFLPA rep assigned to Williams’s case. He told her to stay safe and to let Williams leave the house. He said that someone would call her back. That call never came. Smith-Williams wasn’t entirely surprised — the league rarely returned calls from her or other wives, they had told her. So she didn’t bother calling again.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello says the league has no record of the event. The NFLPA declined to comment, but Patterson, who now counsels NFL families on its behalf, says the players association is “definitely hyper-responsive” to wives’ inquiries.

In another incident that year, in their New Orleans-area home, Smith-Williams says her husband threw a cellphone at her, hit her on the arm with a newspaper, then pushed and held her against the wall and started choking her. This time, she called the cops and filed a police report that describes much of the episode; a copy was obtained by The Washington Post. But she was ultimately afraid to press charges. “I didn’t want the father of my children in jail,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I didn’t want him to lose his job. Bottom line.”

“He said, ‘Don’t talk to the media. Don’t talk to the police. We will handle it.”

Even after players have left the field, their dependent wives have an incentive to protect their husbands’ careers. Wally Williams had retired in 2003 to work as a CBS analyst and moved out of the Maryland home he shared with Smith-Williams. But in January 2005, he returned to pick up a laptop and some other property that, she says, didn’t belong to him. “I called the police and he snatched the phone from me. I called from other phones, and he would do the same. There was a glass door and he pushed me through it.” The police eventually called back, and Smith-Williams was taken to a Maryland emergency room, where, according to hospital records obtained by The Washington Post, she was treated for multiple cuts and bruises. Police came to the hospital and took a statement, but again she chose not to press charges.

Smith-Williams says she has talked about this phenomenon with dozens of football wives and girlfriends over the years, all of whom echo her feeling of powerlessness when law-enforcement, NFL, and NFLPA officials all failed to intervene against signs of domestic-abuse. The women, she says, eventually come to believe there’s nothing they can do fix the problem, so they focus on living with it. “I had friends who had black eyes. They said they ran into cupboards. There were women who said their husbands ran them over like they were on a football field,” Smith-Williams recalls. “There are many other families’ experiences that have already been minimized, ignored, or overlooked by the law and by the NFL because of the protection of the NFL brand.”

*        *        *

Among them was the then-wife of another New Orleans Saints player — the one who asked not to be named because her now ex-husband is still associated with the league. She recalls that one night, when several players were at a bar celebrating their first win of the season during the 1990s, her husband became enraged at her request to go home early. He grabbed her arm roughly and dragged her to their SUV while a teammate convinced two police officers who’d been patrolling nearby not to intervene.

The abuse intensified once they got home, where her husband dragged her into their apartment by her hair and then beat her, she says.

He pushed me to the top of the stairs and shoved me over to the bed. When I stood up, he punched me, and the next thing I remember is coming to on the floor. I remember pulling my legs up to the fetal position to protect myself from his kick after kick. I was vomiting and gasping for air and remember screaming, ‘You are going to kill me!’

Her black eyes lasted for four weeks, she says.

Neighbors who saw the altercation begin outside their home had called the police. But when they arrived, instead of arresting her husband, the officers chatted and laughed with him about his successful game, she says. One requested an autograph for his kid. When her husband cleaned the blood from her face and ushered her downstairs to assure the police officers all was well in the home, they overlooked any evidence of abuse, she says, and as far as she knows they never filed a police report.

The next afternoon, a woman from the Saints main office called her for the first time ever. It wasn’t until she became a potential threat, the wife remembers thinking, that the team had reached out to her. Yet the rep didn’t mention the manhandling at the bar, the intervention from the police or even the abuse, which led the wife to think they just wanted to know whether she intended to involve the police or the press.

[The rep] said she called to ‘check on me.’ … I knew what the call meant.  I think every wife knows innately what that call means: ‘Your husband needs this job, and you don’t want to take his dream away now do you?’ I lost more than my dignity.  I lost my voice, my self-confidence, my identity. I was just a football player’s wife, collateral damage.

She says her then-husband avoided a hospital visit (and a potentially public embarrassment) the next day by cleaning up her bloodied eyes and face with supplies purchased at the drug store. He personally took her to her job to make sure she told her coworkers she had been in a car accident, which explained the bruises. She didn’t follow up with the police or press charges.

“I learned to listen and not speak,” she says. “He would remind me of that night, how no one would care if I was gone and how the cops did [not care]. It was all about him. He reminded me that I was alone and disposable.”

Neither the Saints nor the NFL responded to requests for comment about her story.

*       *        *

In family-style cultures that promote loyalty above other concerns, victims are often disinclined to seek safety, says Ruth Glenn, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “There are a lot of barriers for women when they are trying to leave an abusive relationship,” she says. “The NFL has given us many factors as to why there are barriers: financial, shame, cultural barriers.”

Smith-Williams says that description fits her story, because she had become highly dependent on her NFL husband. She left her hometown of Akron, Ohio, her family and her social circle to move around the country as he played for different teams. She gave up her nursing job to support his career and take care of their growing family. ​For her, like many wives, the NFL became her life and her livelihood, and her husband was the link to that. If he left, she had nothing.

The elevator surveillance video showing Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée Janay Rice in Atlantic City emboldened these women to come forward, they say, because it revealed widespread but rarely-discussed problem. “If you hadn’t seen the video, you would never believe that this happens,” Smith-Williams says. “There is never any accountability” for men taught to attack on the field and enforce their wills on others. “Some of these men are not equipped mentally or emotionally to turn off the aggression switch.” Since separating from her husband, Smith-Williams has gotten a master’s degree and now works as a nurse practitioner in Garfield Heights, Ohio.

The NFLPA says it works with clinicians on various health needs of the players and their families, but there are no programs focused on domestic abuse. Smith-Williams thinks the league should mandate psychological help for players who exhibit warning signs and counseling for abused spouses and children. Token suspensions and resignations do nothing to solve the problem and may even worsen it, because players who are abusive, including their own husbands in the past, use the threat of punishment to keep their partners quiet, the wives say.

If the league is serious about ending domestic violence in its ranks, it must rehabilitate instead of punish, they say. Penalties should be less draconian, so wives don’t worry about ending their husbands’ careers or threatening their families’ livelihoods. “They use [the NFL’s current policies] as leverage against you,” says the ex-wife of the Saints player. “There’s abuse on every team. Everybody knows, but you know not to tell.” Ultimately, she says, the case against Ray Rice has made the NFL less safe for women:

“You will hear of a wife murdered before you hear another one come forward.”

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