Opinion: The NFL is fumbling when it comes to domestic violence

Illustration by Maddie Sofnas and Calla McBride

Imagine not only punching your pregnant girlfriend in the stomach, but also being the prime suspect in breaking a three-year-old’s arm. You would think that these actions would result in jail time, or at least some sort of repercussion. However, when you’re ranked the 15th best player in the National Football League (NFL), it is as if you’re above the law. For Miami Dolphins wide receiver, Tyreek Hill, the only consequence faced for these actions was probation. In fact, the NFL privately investigated this case for four months after the incident, yet somehow they did not find enough evidence to suspend Hill, despite him pleading guilty in court. At the end of the day, Hill did not miss a single game. 

Case after case, year after year, the NFL has continuously proven talent is the only factor considered when signing people, regardless of the negative effect many players have had on their communities. The better the player is, the more opportunities they get to redeem themselves. Plus, when players are drafted on Fantasy football teams across the country, they receive a glorified platform that creates more money for both themselves and the NFL. According to a September 2022 Bark survey, 72 percent of students who play Fantasy football pick the best player available, regardless of if they have committed acts of domestic violence or other crimes. While many consider fantasy football to be a harmless game, it actually creates tons of publicity for these harmful players and further results in more sold jerseys and tickets. This creates immense monetary benefits by pushing players’ actions under the rug. In the case of NFL players’ actions off the field, justice falls to the court of public opinion. In order to hold teams more accountable, the media needs to start responding to these domestic violence actions while demanding harsher charges for these top players. As a result, individuals throughout the U.S. can stop praising these players and change their mindsets about separating the person on the field versus off. Morals can then be restored within the NFL. 

One example of this is Chad Wheeler — a mediocre offensive lineman for the Seattle Seahawks who started choking his girlfriend when she wouldn’t consent to sexual acts with him. He strangled her to the point where she lost consciousness and, according to the Guardian, when she regained it, Wheeler stated “Wow, you’re alive?” The Seahawks knew about this, but only released Wheeler when huge media coverage followed. It took the Seahawks days to even release a statement, and when they did, it seemed forced and ingenuine: 

“The Seahawks are saddened by the details emerging against Chad Wheeler and strongly condemn this act of domestic violence,” the statement read. “Our thoughts and support are with the victim. Chad is a free agent and no longer with the team. If you are experiencing domestic violence, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or go to thehotline.org … We encourage Chad to get the help he needs. If you are experiencing mental health issues, please reach out for help.” 

This response is completely unacceptable, especially considering neither the head coach nor general manager made a statement, thus proving the domestic violence did not hold great enough significance for them to comment. Because Wheeler is bipolar, the Seahawks seem to justify his actions by blaming them on his lack of medication or professional support. While they should have recognized this and gotten him the help he needed earlier, it was too late. They simply wanted this issue to blow over and protect their reputation. If Wheeler was a top player in the NFL, this might have had a different outcome. He, like Hill, may have been able to stay with the Seahawks or sign with another team despite his actions. But, because the media reacted the way they did — creating national attention — the Seahawks were forced to release him and no other team wanted to deal with the media outrage. 

On the other hand, top NFL stars such as Ezekiel Elliot, Kareem Hunt and Jerry Jeudy have all been arrested for crimes of domestic violence, but continue to play in the NFL today. They are glorified and cheered for every Thursday, Sunday and Monday by millions. The media did not perceive their cases as a big deal, therefore they faced minimal consequences. Hunt, for example, was cut by the Kansas City Chiefs after punching and kicking a woman. This received very little attention and no charges were filed against him so the Cleveland Browns immediately signed him to a two-year, $12 million dollar contract despite his actions. The media did not shame Hunt enough for this act, and it took former NFL defensive back Ray Crockett to speak up about the issue on Twitter for a punishment to even be considered.

“NFL, this is a bad look for the League! You can’t just act like you are against domestic violence. You have to be about it. Kareem Hunt has to be suspended,” Crockett wrote.

Following Crockett’s tweet, Hunt was suspended for eight games with the Browns. Why does it take a famous NFL player to speak up for something to be done? Shouldn’t a literal court sentencing be enough? It proves that publicity about these issues is the only solution and the only way to get these players the punishments they deserve. NFL teams do not care about morality; they just want to win. 

However, there are some topics some NFL teams are unwilling to support. While some teams are willing to support abusers in order to win Super Bowls and create high profits, they don’t seem to support players fighting police brutality and racial injustice — even if they’re stars. San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, for example, started a movement where he took a knee during the national anthem to protest against the race divisions throughout the U.S. The ensuing controversy and media attention caused uncomfortable conflict between franchise owners and players, and the San Francisco 49ers announced the decision to cut him despite his contributions to the team’s playoff run. Kaepernick, instead of letting himself be cut, opted out of his contract and filed a grievance against the NFL, claiming the team’s owners colluded to keep him out of the league. He won his grievance case, proving that he’ll never be signed again because the owners are colluding. And while the 49ers cut Kaepernick for protesting, they didn’t cut their star defensive end Aldon Smith when he had two DUIs, three felony counts of possession of illegal assault weapons and suspicion of making false bomb threats at the Los Angeles International Airport. They didn’t release defensive end Ray McDonald who abused his fiancée, Kendra Scott, multiple times, despite her sharing her story about him leaving bruises around her neck and a black eye. It is clear the NFL prefers players with criminal records in the league over someone advocating for their rights. If the media and NFL reacted to domestic violence the way they do protesting injustices, then we might actually see change. 

If sports are supposed to be about the numbers and statistics teams put out every game, it’s easy to see why people try to judge a player solely on their performances on the field. They put up the numbers and should be lauded for that. However, on the NFL website, they state, “The NFL is committed to addressing and preventing domestic violence and sexual assault. Through national and local partnerships, the NFL works year-round to provide resources to educate communities and support survivors.” Is allowing abusive players back into the league with little punishment preventing domestic violence? Is it really supporting the survivors? Change needs to be made, and it starts with holding these players accountable for their crimes. In addition, with the media holding so much power, it provides a platform to not only educate but also shame the NFL for their actions regarding assaults. With this in effect, Fantasy football leagues can then stop drafting and glorifying these players so change can be made. 

“They don’t want the negative publicity,” Scott said about the NFL when speaking about the abuse she faced. “They don’t want the attention. They don’t want to be associated with that. But this is such a real issue. It happens all the time.” 

This is blatantly unjustifiable, and it starts with the media.