News broke this afternoon that Chicago Bears DT Ray McDonald was arrested for domestic violence and possible child endangerment. This is not the first time McDonald has had run-ins with the law. The 49ers released McDonald this past season after cases involving domestic violence and sexual assault. McDonald disputed the sexual assault charges, and, in fact, was planning on suing one of his accusers. Here we are, a few short months later, and McDonald is finding himself accused once again. (Update: McDonald was released from the Bears this afternoon.)
News of McDonald's arrest, coupled with the reminder of Ray Rice's domestic violence incident in the wake of his recent completion of a mandatory intervention program, is disturbing. These are far from isolated instances. In the last few years numerous players have been involved in domestic violence incidents of varying severity. One of the most prominent and tragic was the case of Kansas City Chief's linebacker Jovan Belcher who in 2012 killed his girlfriend before shooting himself.
Because of the high-profile nature of many of these crimes, it would seem that there is an epidemic of domestic violence in the NFL. In fact, NFL arrest rates for domestic violence are well below the national average. Domestic violence is not a problem specific to the NFL. Unfortunately, it is a common and pervasive crime with one in four women falling victim to abuse in her lifetime, according to Safe Horizon. Most of these incidents go unreported, so arrest rates do not represent the frequency with which this type of crime occurs. While it is easy to express outrage when our football heroes turn out to be offenders, it is close to certain that we have encountered abusers in our own circle of friends and family. Out of the spotlight, however, it is easy for most offenders to fly under the radar even when the police are involved.
Where does the NFL fit into all of this? They have been accused of leniency and arbitrariness in doling out consequences for perpetrators of domestic violence, and it is also clear that NFL players do not need to have a clean criminal record to maintain their employment in the league. Fact is, players can commit outrageous crimes and continue their careers. Because of these policies, the NFL gives the impression they care more about turning a profit than preventing domestic violence. That is likely true. After all, the NFL is a business. By definition they are profit-oriented.
Ray Rice in particular was heavily criticized for being afforded the opportunity to participate in a pretrial intervention program instead of facing more punitive consequences. One definite advantage of incarceration for offenders is that it provides immediate protection for the abused partner, and it can also be argued that prison time serves as both an effective punishment and deterrent.
Where NFL observers go wrong is to view pretrial intervention programs as a useless farce. A meta-analysis of 22 different studies showed that offenders who participate in batterer intervention programs do not have higher recidivism rates than those who are incarcerated for their crimes. In another words, those programs aren't a waste of time. In recent years, there has been more research into domestic violence intervention programs that yield even better results. For example, Mind-Body Bridging (MBB) therapy has been shown to reduce future incidents of domestic violence in program participants. So, while therapeutic interventions can seem overly lenient as an alternative to jail time, they can prevent future incidents of domestic violence and help offenders learn how to function more effectively in interpersonal relationships. Hopefully Ray Rice and his family are beneficiaries of this type of program.
Indeed, there are examples of other players who have successfully rehabilitated themselves through treatment. In 2011, fomer Bears WR, and recent New York Jets acquisition, Brandon Marshall ended up stabbed by his wife during a domestic violence incident in their home. To say this incident was a wake-up call for Marshall is an understatement. Marshall was a man who was out of control, and this incident was a piece of a larger, more disturbing puzzle. To Brandon Marshall's credit, he underwent extensive in-patient mental health treatment for issues including Borderline Personality Disorder, a condition that is marked by violent mood swings and chaos in interpersonal relationships. Since then, he has been the face of mental health, striving to destigmatize mental illness for players and the community at large. He explained, "We can raise all the money in the world, but people might not go get help. They're still going to see it as a taboo topic. So it's important for us to get the conversation started. We focus so much on all the bad behaviors, but we ignore the guys who are suffering in silence. I think there are more guys suffering in silence in the NFL than there are people you can see."
We can't know what goes on behind closed doors or what is lurking underneath the strong, confident veneers that NFL players present to the world. Ray McDonald's arrest brings to light two highly stigmatized issues that often stay in the shadows: mental health and domestic violence. It is often easier to ignore and deny problems than seek out help-- this phenomenon applies to both victims and offenders. Silence and shame only exacerbate the problem. While McDonald's arrest is disturbing, it should provide an opportunity to talk about these uncomfortable issues. It is easy to complain about Goodell and the NFL's response, but it can be very difficult to take a hard look at our own relationship patterns and psychological health.
Instead of reacting to McDonald's arrest with judgment and outrage, perhaps now is the time to ask these hard questions: Is there a pattern of abuse in your relationship? Do you wish your relationship were healthier and more balanced? The National Domestic Violence Hotline is a great resource for people in crisis. Getting help before your relationship implodes is even better. Psychology Today and Good Therapy are two resources that can connect you with a qualified clinician in your area.