OTL: NFL didn't enforce own policies

ByMark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru ESPN logo
Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Long before the NFL faced questions about Ray Rice, there was the case of Dan "Big Daddy" Wilkinson. In 1995, the Cincinnati Bengals' 325-pound defensive tackle briefly became a symbol of the league's approach to domestic violence after he was accused of striking his pregnant girlfriend at their suburban Cincinnati home.

The case fueled calls for the NFL to address domestic violence more aggressively. Two years later, the league implemented its first personal conduct policy, which empowered the commissioner to hand out suspensions and stiff fines to any player convicted of a domestic violence offense.

But an "Outside the Lines" analysis shows that policy -- and variations crafted by the NFL over the past two decades -- did not yield a suspension after a domestic violence conviction until 2000, according to data compiled from court records and media reports. And out of 48 players considered guilty of domestic violence under the league policy between 2000 through 2014, the league suspended players for one game or not at all in 88 percent of the cases. Twenty-seven players -- or 56 percent -- received no suspension, and 15 others were forced to sit out one game.

The initial two-game suspension of Rice -- despite video footage that showed him dragging his unconscious then-fiance out of an elevator -- was consistent with an NFL policy that for years meted out much harsher punishments for substance abuse and performance-enhancing drugs than for physical violence against women. Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue and his successor, Roger Goodell, let players play on -- and continue to collect their paychecks -- in the face of publicly available evidence that was often graphic and disturbing. Four victims of domestic violence who agreed to interviews with "Outside the Lines" said no league representative contacted them before the commissioner ruled on how their abusers would be punished.

"You can't ignore it and sweep it under the rug," said one woman, who was assaulted by former Tennessee Titans defensive back Denard Walker in 1999, two years after the league's domestic violence policy went into effect.

Walker battered the woman in front of their 19-month-old son, pinned her to the ground with his knee and choked her, the woman said she told police. He entered a conditional plea, and he was placed on one-year probation that required him to attend weekly domestic violence classes. With no further incidents, his record was expunged after one year.

Walker was allowed to play the entire 1999 season, including in the Super Bowl. He later received a two-game suspension, which was reduced to one game on appeal.

"This man tried to take my life, and there's no way he should have been allowed to play that year," said the woman, who asked not to be identified because she now works in law enforcement.

The punishments handed out by the NFL contradicted the recommendations of the league's own domestic violence expert, who had been brought in by Tagliabue in the early 1990s to help address the issue.

The expert, psychologist Lem Burnham, a former Philadelphia Eagles defensive end who served as the NFL's vice president of player and employee development, told "Outside the Lines" he advised league officials to adopt a zero-tolerance policy banning any player convicted of a domestic violence offense. "I conveyed it to a lot of different people," he said. "No tolerance means they're out -- period. That's the way I felt then, and that's the way I feel now."

Burnham, who is now an associate professor and assistant chairman of behavioral science and psychology at Wilmington University, said the Rice case showed how little has changed.

"I don't know why time stood still," Burnham said.

This year, the NFL waited until late August to overhaul the domestic violence section of its personal conduct policy, just 11 days before the release of a second video that showed Rice striking his future wife in the elevator with his closed fist. Under the revised policy, players will receive a minimum six-game suspension for their first offense and a lifetime ban for their second. In a letter to owners, Goodell, who declined an interview through a spokesman, wrote that, after reviewing the league's personal conduct policy, which covers incidents of domestic violence, he concluded that the league's approach called for sweeping changes in education, evaluation and support, "as well as enhanced discipline."

"These steps are based on a clear, simple principle: domestic violence and sexual assault are wrong," Goodell wrote. "They are illegal. They have no place in the NFL and are unacceptable in any way, under any circumstances. That has been and remains our policy."

Yet the new rules only underscore the tepidness of the policy over the previous 17 years. Since the first policy addressing off-the-field crimes was introduced in 1997 -- then called the violent crime policy -- the document has gone through a handful of iterations, with minimal changes. Most notably, it was left to the commissioner's discretion to levy suspensions -- power that Tagliabue and then Goodell exercised in less than half of all domestic violence convictions. From 2000 to 2014, Tagliabue and Goodell suspended players for one game or not at all in 88 percent of cases. Compare that with substance abuse and performance-enhancing drug violations, which resulted in suspensions of four games or more in 82 percent of such cases over the same period.

Watching Goodell announce the new initiative, with an emphasis on education and counseling, was "shocking," Burnham said. "It was shocking because that's reinventing the wheel. We already did that."

Tagliabue tapped Burnham to work for the NFL in 1992, and he crafted an educational platform that included presentations to players and team employees.

"I think Commissioner Tagliabue was very progressive, open-minded, ahead of the game and was able to see the future, and I think he knew that if these issues weren't addressed, right here, right now, starting today, there would be problems down the road," Burnham said. "... On the other hand, I think there were mixed views among owners and head coaches as to whether it was a problem we should even be addressing."

With other experts, Burnham put together pamphlets titled "On Domestic Violence" and "No Means No," designed to raise awareness. Soon after he joined the NFL, Burnham was appointed to the presidential advisory council on violence against women that was co-chaired by Attorney General Janet Reno and Donna Shalala, the secretary of health and human services in the Clinton administration. That committee helped implement the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which provided funding for domestic violence programs and more stringent guidelines for prosecution and the protection of victims.

At the time, the NFL was trying to weather a wave of bad publicity around players' off-the-field conduct, including several high-profile domestic violence offenses. The league's approach was largely hands-off.

"We're not the criminal justice system," Greg Aiello, the NFL's communications director then and now, told The Washington Post in a 1994 story that revealed a league reluctant to deal with domestic violence cases involving its players. "We can't cure every ill in society. You know, we're putting on football games. And unless it impacts on the business, we have to be very careful [from a legal standpoint] about disciplinary action we take. A player has rights, too."

Burnham recalls being struck by the stark differences between the views of the president's advisory council and the NFL when it came to dealing with domestic violence offenders. The council recommended zero tolerance, especially in the influential sports and entertainment industries. But the NFL had not suspended a single player.

Asked how he reconciled working for two entities with such diametrically opposite positions, Burnham said: "Well, it's a left-brain, right-brain thing. I just put the NFL in the left brain and the national advisory council in the right brain. But it's tough. You know what you believe in. You know what your principles are."

Burnham initially chalked up the NFL's reluctance to punish domestic violence offenders to the lack of a coherent policy. "There was no policy on abhorrent behavior like domestic violence and other types of assault," he said. "So it was very difficult to sit and watch that happening and see no consequences. But on the other hand, I understood the lack of a policy and what that would result in. It would result in no action toward the players, basically."

That began to change, he said, as the NFL faced mounting public pressure to take action. The Wilkinson case in 1995 "struck a chord," Burnham said, as Tagliabue and other league officials began to realize "'this is something that's going to hurt us at some point on the revenue end. Because if sponsors start to pull out, if sponsors start to not like what they're seeing from our players, it could hurt on the revenue end.' That forces you to take action."

As Wilkinson's former wife, Shawnda, describes it, the case was more serious than was made public. She alleged that the incident was one of "at least a few, maybe four" occasions in which her boyfriend, whom she later married and then divorced, physically abused her.

In a text message to "Outside the Lines," Dan Wilkinson described the allegations surrounding his arrest as "a total lie" and wrote: "You are doing a story of a lie, which is amazing to me. I have been with my wife 13 years along with all my kids and none of them can say they ever seen me violent at all. You couldn't find not one person on earth that would ever say I'm a violent person let alone hit a pregnant woman in the stomach, its a total lie as The Lord God is my witness, you should ask her daughter or her mother or anyone who knows her what type a person she is and the truth."

Shawnda and Dan had met when he was an All-America defensive tackle at Ohio State. "He was like a big teddy bear," she said. "In the beginning, it was a lot of fun." But their relationship would prove difficult, both acknowledge.

In 1995, with Shawnda four months pregnant, the couple got in an altercation at their Cincinnati-area home. "He hit me in my stomach," Shawnda said. "And when he hit me in my stomach, all I could feel was pain." She described it as being "grazed" but said she was concerned enough about the baby that she called 911.

The police came and arrested her husband.

From the start, the Bengals appeared to have no intention of punishing Wilkinson, whom they had signed to a six year, $14.4 million contract -- the largest in franchise history. One day after Wilkinson's arrest, Bengals owner Mike Brown described the incident as "a blemish" and suggested that Wilkinson was unlikely to be suspended.

Brown told reporters: "Whatever punishment he receives -- and he will receive a lot of it -- will be how people perceive him. That will be a burden he'll have to carry for some time until he makes up for it."

Wilkinson pleaded no contest and said to reporters outside of the courthouse: "Instead of talking and resolving a problem in the proper way, I struck Shawnda."

This week, though, he told "Outside the Lines" that he pleaded no contest only "with the thought to take the route that would get this process put behind me so I can raise my child under a happy family ... Me saying that I hit her was not saying that I hit her in the stomach. If I hit her anywhere, it was probably in the back. I grabbed her, turned her around and set her down."

The Wilkinsons divorced in 2001, Shawnda said, their relationship marked by tumult, including a 1998 incident in which she was charged by police with assault after an altercation at home with a family friend. Shawnda pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.

The Dan Wilkinson case, and others like it, convinced the NFL that it needed to act, Burnham said. The new policy ordered "mandatory clinical evaluation and appropriate counseling" for a player charged with domestic violence. Any form of a guilty admission could mean a "fine or suspension without pay." That included players entering a diversion program such as the one Ray Rice was granted.

Burnham said he thought the provision allowing the commissioner to hand out suspensions and fines would mean much stiffer penalties.

Those punishments did not materialize, and it remains unclear why Tagliabue waited three years to issue the first suspension. Those initial suspensions came not long after two high-profile cases hit the NFL -- Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis being charged in connection with the stabbing death of two men outside an Atlanta nightclub after the 2000 Super Bowl and Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth being arrested in connection with the shooting death of his pregnant girlfriend.

The Denard Walker case appears to show how reluctant the league was to hand out suspensions even after its new policy went into effect.

On the morning of June 26, 1999, Walker got into an altercation with his girlfriend at their apartment, the woman told police.

"I don't know what happened, but he just flipped out," the woman told "Outside the Lines" in a recent interview. "He just started punching me. Screaming at me. Hollering at me. I mean he was trying to fight me like I was a football player. He tried to fight me like a boxer. I mean, it was just an all-out -- the worst assault possible."

The woman said Walker "jumped on top of me, and he started to strangle me. I remember him putting his hands around my neck and my face was on the ground. He was on top of me on my back. And I remember him, you know, just putting his hands and just squeezing and squeezing. And he had his knee in my back so that I couldn't get up. I was stuck there. And I remember thinking, 'Oh my ... I'm gonna die. I'm gonna die.'"

The woman said she went to the police after her boss threatened to report the incident if she refused. Walker, who did not respond to a request for comment from "Outside the Lines," was arrested and pleaded guilty in August. Yet he played throughout the entire 1999 season for the Titans, and the case seemingly would have been buried but for a report published in the middle of the playoffs by the Nashville Scene alternative newspaper. The paper described Walker's case -- including how two Nashville Metro policemen paid his bail -- and two months later Walker was given a two-game suspension, making him one of the first players suspended under the NFL's three-year-old personal conduct policy.

In announcing that suspension along with two others, Tagliabue said in a statement: "As an organization whose continued success depends on integrity and public confidence, the NFL simply cannot tolerate conduct that victimizes other individuals and results in a loss of respect for NFL players."

Despite his guilty plea, Walker later denied he had hit the woman and appealed his suspension. When the penalty was reduced to one game, Walker told reporters, "I'm glad the NFL ... gave me an opportunity to set the record straight." Said Jeff Fisher, the Titans' coach at the time, "Denard's been through an awful lot this offseason. It's nice to a certain extent to put things behind us."

The woman said the NFL never consulted her before issuing the suspension or later reducing it. Asked what she thought about the league's appeal process, given that she had never been contacted, the woman said, "That was a formality, not a process, because they knew what they were gonna do from the beginning, and they're gonna protect their employee."

"It would have been nice if there was a domestic violence counselor that the NFL had that I could have talked to," she continued. "Then I can understand: 'Well, they tried to help the victim in this; they offered counseling.' But when you amend a suspension for a domestic violence incident, it's like saying it didn't happen. And, you know, I'm thinking: 'Well, what if that was their daughter? Would they still do the same thing?'"

Producer Arty Berko of ESPN's Enterprise/Investigative Unit and ESPN The Magazine researchers Dale Brauner, John Mastroberardino and Gus Elvin contributed to this report.

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