In January of 2016, the NFL sent a memo to its 32 member teams regarding a new policy for college players with domestic violence convictions attending the NFL Scouting Combine. The unreleased memo indicated background checks would be performed to determine whether a college player had a felony or misdemeanor conviction(s).
It also contemplated teams being more cognizant of a college players history with regard to violent acts, and presumably, therefore more concerned over whether that players was a good fit for the NFL.
The new policy was precipitated, in part, by the Frank Clark situation. On or about November 15, 2014 Clark, then a Michigan Wolverine, was charged with misdemeanor assault and domestic violence. The Seattle Times did a fantastic job looking into Clark’s situation and the details from the police report are chilling. His then girlfriend was found semi naked and unconscious by witnesses who heard the altercation next door and intervened.
It is important to note domestic violence is assault and battery but has historically been separated because of the involvement of family matters. The result has been a long tradition of separating “domestic violence” from assault and battery and treating it as a private matter and thus beyond the scope of public scrutiny. Fortunately, times are changing in that regard.
In Ohio, where the incident took place, domestic violence is now a separate charge and includes threatened violence as well as committed violence. It is punishable as either a felony or misdemeanor depending on the circumstances. There are potential upcharges for those charged under the domestic violence act, and the law deals harshly with those who assault pregnant women.
While the NFL is putting greater emphasis on these issues, teams are often unwilling to follow suit and Clark’s case is illustrative. Clark was kicked off his college team shortly after his arrest. He later pled guilty to a reduced charge of persistent disorderly conduct in a sweet plea arranged by the local prosecutor, whose actions were also called into question.
Despite the ugliness and violence of the charges, the Seattle Seahawks drafted Clark in the second round of the 2015 NFL draft. The organization faced a mountain of criticism for the selection and quickly went on the defensive saying their investigation revealed he didn’t hit anyone. Unfortunately for them, it quickly became clear they didn’t do their homework on Clark.
A year later, Troy Vincent, the NFL’s Vice President of Football Operations, communicated the league’s new combine policy in a memo sent to all teams in January of 2016. The rule would have barred Clark from the combine had it been in place the prior year.
Although the actual policy has not been released, it appears now to have been amended, as per Kevin McGuire for The Comeback, to include college players with a “history” of violent offenses, including domestic violence or sexual assault convictions. Since the actual memo and policy itself has never been communicated publicly the details concerning it are incredibly vague.
This year, the NFL specifically excluded former Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon, caught on tape assaulting a woman resulting in broken bones in her facial area – as well as former Baylor wide receiver Ishmael Zamora, caught on video assaulting a dog and beating it with a belt. This has led to some debate over why the NFL chose to include players such as Decrick Deshawn (Dede) Westbrook.
The curious case of Dede Westbrook is a good way to discuss the limitations on the policy and why the vagueness is so concerning. While there are no videotapes or pictures available, there is certainly a history of domestic violence. Westbrook was arrested twice for assaulting his girlfriend.
As is often the case with domestic violence, the woman at the center of the arrests – and the mother of two of his three children – did not cooperate with those seeking information and the charges were dismissed. She also recanted statements made to police despite visible evidence of assault. This is also quite common.
Further, as is often the case, Westbrook’s mother appealed to the young woman telling her “you could ruin his life like that.” From all appearances, the young woman involved simply wants to be left alone and to protect her privacy. It is reported that she and Westbrook cooperate with visitation regarding his children and he may still owe her child support. Tulsa World has an excellent look at the situation.
The reasons why domestic violence victims opt not to pursue charges, and also want to protect their privacy vary. Many victims have ongoing relationships with their abuser that involve children. Pursuing these charges can affect a player’s career and in many cases such as Westbrook’s he owes them child support. The financial connection cannot be overlooked.
Further, many victims who come forward and pursue charges are harassed and threatened by the team’s respective sports base. One need look no further than the Jameis Winston’s case to see how frightening it can be. Not only did his accuser suffer from this despicable behavior and was forced to withdraw from school, but journalists reporting on the case were threatened and harassed as well.
Speaking of Florida State University, the Dalvin Cook case also highlights some of the problems with the vagueness of the invite policy and how difficult it can be to measure. FSU has experienced a rash of player arrests and incidents under current head coach Jimbo Fisher. While the Cook case is not domestic violence, as he was accused of assaulting a fellow FSU student at a local bar following an altercation between FSU players and the woman and her friends, it is instructive on how interpretation of “history” matters.
Cook was acquitted at trial based largely on testimony from his teammates as well as another FSU student. Despite photographic evidence, some expressed skepticism over whether such injuries could have resulted to the victim from a “football player.” Yet Cook was given the benefit of the doubt, and received an invite, despite previously being cited for mistreating three pit bull puppies back in 2014.
These aren’t isolated cases. The list goes on and on and includes other examples of players given multiple chances like Jonathan Taylor (not invited) and Devonte Fields (invited) because rule number one is talent overrides everything. Indeed, for years it was hard to get a grasp on red flags like domestic violence because the scouting world simply did not include it in the discussion. This has long been a source of frustration for victim’s rights proponents.
A policy like the NFL’s makes it incumbent on draft analysts to address these flags in their evaluation because it could affect combine eligibility and, perhaps, draftability. Teams like the Seahawks may give lip service to caring about domestic violence but their draft history says otherwise. Actions always speak louder than words.
Rumors abound that Mixon is off the boards for many NFL teams but is he really? Is it fair to exclude Mixon and Zamora yet include players like Taylor et. al.? Thus, the big issue with the NFL’s new policy. We simply do not know the parameters and without knowing the details oversight is impossible. The devil, as they say, is in the details.
You can find a full list of the 2017 NFL combine participants here.