A little more than two years ago, an agent called with a complaint about the NFL’s aggressive move into domestic violence investigations. A client on an AFC South team had gotten a surprise visit from one of the league’s investigators, who had a litany of probing questions regarding an allegation from a former girlfriend. The player vehemently denied the accusations. Soon, his agent was amassing evidence and witnesses to clear his client’s name.
Ultimately, the allegations failed to gain traction. The investigation faded, although the player and agent were never officially informed that the matter had been closed. When it was all seemingly over, the agent was left with a pointed complaint framed inside a question:
Why is the NFL bankrolling a unit to chase down domestic violence claims when the allegations can be investigated by local police?
Tuesday showed why the NFL’s imperfect and sometimes messy battle against domestic violence continues to be a necessity.
Using multiple social media platforms, a woman posted (before taking it down hours later) a brutal photo of a friend who she claimed was the ex-girlfriend of Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy. The woman directed the social posts at McCoy with a caption: “I can’t believe you did this to my best friend!!!!! YOUR KARMA IS GOING TO BE SO REAL!!!!!! The world needs to know what type of animal you really are!!!!!!!”
Within hours, the allegation against McCoy was seemingly everywhere, including an accounting of the litigious relationship between the Bills running back and the woman who was claimed to be shown in the photos. Soon, a 911-dispatch call surfaced. Then a statement from local police. A helicopter hovered over McCoy’s residence and a reporter was knocking on the front door. The alleged victim had retained a lawyer. And in the space of a few hours, the NFL had a star player confronted with brutal accusations without having any idea whether McCoy was involved or not.
In 2013, the NFL’s track record suggested it would be inclined to wait and see what local authorities discovered. It would have slow-rolled a response. It might have had NFL security make a call to local police and then simply keep an open line of communication with Bills team officials. And for the most part, that would have been the extent of the effort until a formal legal outcome presented itself.
But the Ray Rice tape – one of the most infamous incidents dropped into the NFL’s public relations landscape – forever changed how the league was forced to approach domestic violence allegations. In that moment, the NFL was forced to realize the dramatic, shuddering realities of social media. Regardless of when or where or how instantaneously provable a graphic photograph is, social media will sear it into the eyeballs of a vast swath of fans before the first phone call can be made.
The allegation against McCoy was the quintessential example. The picture itself was so horrible and shocking that it incited rage before words contained in the allegation could be processed. The NFL can’t sit idle in the face of something that is unacceptable. Not with Rice and Greg Hardy and others dotting the league’s less-than-perfect history of trying to cope and combat domestic violence inside the NFL.
It’s why the NFL spends millions of dollars on a team of domestic violence snoops, spearheaded by lead investigator Lisa Friel. A photo, video or police report can strike the public space like a miles-wide meteor – and that has erased any luxury of waiting or standing down when local law enforcement can’t make the progress necessary to prove guilt.
Of course, necessity doesn’t mean the process – or the NFL – is completely unassailable. The league’s investigation into Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott had more than a few red flags raised when the probe was laid bare in a tense legal battle. And large parts of the investigative workings remain maddeningly opaque from one case to the next. It’s unclear if the league has completely concluded a probe into a particular player. (Like, for example, San Francisco 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster.) In other instances, there’s never a full accounting of the evidence that leads to a suspension or why a specific punishment was reached. (See: Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston.)
But in all three of those examples – regardless of inconsistencies, criticisms or vague precedents – the NFL can lean on something that matters in a public relations space. That at least it’s doing something. It’s not sitting on its hands and leaving all of the heavy lifting to someone else. It’s not looking completely the other way. And it’s definitely not looking at a ghastly photo allegation on social media this week and hoping to avoid the meteor strike.
In the long term, the reality is this: A sizable portion of NFL fans will dislike that the league is in the investigative business. Some owners, like the Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, won’t be particularly fond of it. And there will be no shortage of opponents who will look at Friel and question whether she and her investigative unit have too much power and latitude to chase down claims with relative impunity – leaving players, teams or agents staring into a fog and grasping for a definitive end.
Those criticisms have merit. But when confronted with a day like Tuesday, when a horrific photo was tied to some troubling allegations, something else clearly has merit, too.
The NFL can’t afford to do nothing. Everything has to be examined. No matter how imperfect the process, the McCoy allegations show it’s as necessary as ever. For both the player and those who bring allegations against them.
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