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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Jonathan Dwyer, Not Ray Rice, Is NFL's Test Case

The Ray Rice incident is "The Big One" in terms of the NFL and its half-hearted personal conduct policy. Not only did we hear about it, but we saw it with our own eyes.

And it wasn't just some name on the back of the jersey. This was THE Ray Rice. Super Bowl Champion. Star. Pro Bowler. Driving force behind Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco's uncanny ability to throw the ball to no one and yet have someone run under it. The Ravens' decline in 2013 can be directly traced to Rice's decline in production.

And now, the Rice incident is allegedly a part of a massive cover-up by both the Ravens and the NFL.

While it's the case that will get all the attention and may ultimately change NFL and NFL Players' Association policy, it's not the only case. In fact, it's not even the most important one. For that, everyone needs to start looking west.

Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer is now the fourth player--at least that we know of--to face legal issues with domestic violence. Dwyer was arrested and booked last Wednesday for an incident that took place on Sept. 11.

His case is no more egregious than any other case, including Rice. The difference is that there is no video evidence. We know that the NFL will be typically reactionary to what is caught on tape. But what will they do in a case where no one is watching?

In football terms, Dwyer is obscure compared to Rice. He was cut twice by the Pittsburgh Steelers when the team was bereft of competent running backs. He has had some success in his limited time with the Cardinals, but certainly nothing to raise eyebrows in anyone's fantasy league.

It will be interesting to see how the league responds to the low-profile cases, because those are the ones that they've stuffed behind the couch for years. Terrell Suggs would be an example of that mentality. The "Disciplinarian" Commissioner Roger Goodell, the owners, and their underlings have scarcely said a word about Greg Hardy, Ray McDonald, or Adrian Peterson--until the public relations nightmare got too scary.

The NFL and Goodell, who finally appeared from the Bat Cave last Friday, are talking a good game about getting serious about this sociological, societal and personal mess that they have enabled. But are they just mugging (sorry, poor wording) for the cameras or do they truly mean business?

Cases like Dwyer will tell the tale. If the League is honest about taking care of players and families--and that is highly questionable at this point--then they'll spend much more time on Dwyer than Rice. The case is textbook for all of the issues that surround Domestic Violence issues and policies, including laws and law enforcement.

Dwyer's wife, Kayla, has called the police several times, but was frightened to press the issue because Dwyer threatened to commit suicide. That raises the issue of why women stay in abusive situations. They often fear for the lives of themselves, their children, or someone else.

Teammates described Dwyer as "always smiling" and said that no visible signs of problems existed. Often, law enforcement is the first (and perhaps only) entity to have full knowledge of the issues at hand. Domestic violence is all about covering the truth, and the NFL has excelled in perpetuating the issue. In spite of their immense resources and power, the league and its member teams have refused to take a deeper look at this issue.

The Cardinals cannot activate Dwyer this season because he's under psychiatric evaluation. Now we have the issue of mental illness, the kind that is largely ignored and untreated in all segments of society. It also an issue that strikes players with concussions and brain injuries.

Finally, there is the issue of the legal system. Law enforcement could neither stop and/or help Dwyer nor protect his family. The full weight of that responsibility fell on a terrified wife. Rather than yelling about changing the NFL, perhaps we should spend more time looking at the domestic violence laws in our respective states. Something has to be done to give law enforcement fair power to intervene.

Thankfully, the Cardinals saw fit to keep Dwyer from playing until this matter is somehow resolved. Perhaps they were smart enough to learn from the mistakes of the NFL, the NFLPA, and at least four other teams that have botched every aspect of dealing with domestic violence issues.

Even still, it certainly didn't hurt that Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians is married to a lawyer who is an advocate for abused children. The rest of the league would be wise to find lawyers like Christine Arians, who deals daily with domestic violence issues. That might teach them how to help prevent and deal with domestic violence. And it's a much better option for the League than scrambling for defense attorneys and PR reps.

This case could be the poster child for helping with all of the issues that involve domestic violence. While the NFL is not obligated to deal with these issues, it certainly has a moral responsibility to give its best efforts to help.

The Dwyer case will be the one that tells us if the NFL truly cares about its players, families, and society as a whole. No, they cannot be the Morality Police of America, but they could use their billions of non-profit dollars to make a statement on this issue. Forming panels and advisory committees is nice, but it will amount to nothing if the league refuses to take action, with or without video evidence.

The NFL is pretty much like the Mafia that we see in the movies. They can do what they want, take what they choose, and influence whom they please. It's time for them to press the domestic violence issue to its limit in every arena of life.

Jonathan Dwyer is in a position that he never expected. His case may well determine if the NFL is really going to be a force for good in the society it so powerfully influences, or if it will simply continue to run the PR machine to its advantage.

I hate to say this. But with Roger Goodell at the helm and billions of dollars at stake, I fear that the latter is going to rule the day. And the NFL will miss an opportunity to have an impact that goes well beyond their most recent TV deal.

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