Roethlisberger, the starting quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers at the time, was beloved by fans — having led the Steelers to two Super Bowl championships.
Roethlisberger’s was the first case of alleged violence against women that sports reporter Melissa Jacobs, now managing editor of The Football Girl and a contributor to The Guardian, remembers hearing about as a reporter covering the league. The NFL, she said, seemed completely incompetent at the time. When the league reduced Roethlisberger’s suspension, she was stunned.
“The NFL had no blueprint in place for how to handle this,” Jacobs told CNN.
Once again, the league is under scrutiny for its handling of sexual misconduct accusations. This time, that scrutiny is centered on Deshaun Watson.
Watson, quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, has faced allegations from more than two dozen women who say the football star sexually harassed or assaulted them during private massage appointments during his time with the Houston Texans. Twenty-four women filed civil lawsuits against Watson. Twenty-three of those civil suits have been settled confidentially; two grand juries in Texas declined to charge Watson criminally.
Initially, Watson, who has consistently denied any wrongdoing, was hit with a six-game suspension, just like Roethlisberger. But unlike in the past, Goodell and the NFL pushed for more — appealing the decision and seeking a full-season suspension.
But just days after the league announced Watson’s updated suspension and fine, a new civil lawsuit against a newly drafted NFL player has come to light.
Thus, questions from critics still linger: Is Watson’s penalty enough?
A history of alleged violence against women
Domestic violence cases and accusations of sexual misconduct in football aren’t limited to the professional level — colleges and universities have a history of such accusations as well.
“We felt like we were above the law,” Clay said. “Like OU would protect us from anything.”
“I’m disappointed that she filed this civil lawsuit against my client because he didn’t rape her, he never used any force against her, she was not visibly intoxicated, he did not hand her a drink with anything in it,” Kerry Armstrong, Araiza’s lawyer, told CNN on a call.
The university is investigating the matter, SDSU officials said in a statement, as is the San Diego Police Department. Both the Bills and the NFL stated they are aware of the lawsuit but declined to comment due to the ongoing investigation. No criminal charges have been filed.
Many athletes are identified as stars relatively young, Epstein explained, even before they go to college. People treat them like gods who don’t have to follow the rules, she said. And that can be detrimental.
“For someone that young, it’s incredibly hard to avoid internalizing those messages and developing into a person that acts impulsively (and) doesn’t really have to think through the consequences of his actions,” Epstein said. “And that pattern, that kind of life, is one that can easily lead to violence against women, feeling like everything’s your property.”
Two years later, when Chapman signed with the New York Yankees, owner Hal Steinbrenner defended the move in spite of the allegations.
“Look, he admitted he messed up. He paid the penalty. Sooner or later, we forget, right?” Steinbrenner said at the time. “That’s the way we’re supposed to be in life.”
Even when the NFL penalizes alleged misconduct, experts say it can do more to prevent it
The NFL does now have policies in place to punish those accused of sexual misconduct or violence against women, following an investigation. But the data shows those policies haven’t always been strictly followed.
And the majority of infractions were for general violent behaviors, things like assault and battery or allegations of such, which Wiersma-Mosley found received an average suspension time of just two games — suggesting that the league doesn’t only have an issue with violence against women, but violence in general.
Brian McCarthy, a spokesperson for the NFL, disagreed with that suggestion, telling CNN that less than 1% of players are involved in a matter that leads to an arrest, and that the league works to hold those who violate NFL policies accountable even when there are no legal ramifications.
“The silence by players and the league allow violence to continue, particularly in high risk all-male groups where group loyalty is engrained,” she said. “Instead the league should empower players to speak out as active bystanders and allies in the prevention of violence.”
But in Epstein’s view, the league has yet to discover how to actually penalize claims of misconduct or violence against women in a way that is both a deterrent and an act of justice.
“It’s really hard to argue that that’s the same level as sexual assault,” Epstein said.
In response, Anna Isaacson, the NFL’s senior vice president of social responsibility, told CNN the league relies on experts and advisers whenever there is a case of domestic or sexual violence. Those experts, she said, have advised the league to take a “multifaceted, comprehensive approach” to addressing these cases, rather than relying solely on punishment.
“Discipline alone — so just the number of games one gets suspended — is not enough to curb behavior or deter future action,” Isaacson said.
Still, no one wants to think about assault while the game is happening, Jacobs said. Fans want an escape, owners want a profit.
“The marketing for the NFL is just phenomenal,” she said. “They know they have millions of suckers who are just into their product and maybe care about an issue on Tuesday or Wednesday, but once the games start on Sunday that’s not what fans are thinking about.”
Isaacson said the NFL has “done a lot of education for fans,” including several public service campaigns about domestic violence and airing Super Bowl ads from domestic violence organizations.
To actually address domestic violence and sexual misconduct, the NFL should also focus on promoting anti-violence messages early on, Epstein said, while athletes are still in elementary and middle school. By the time players get to the NFL, it might actually be too late, she said.
The NFL did create Character Playbook in 2014 — the same year Rice was suspended indefinitely from the league — an educational program for middle schoolers focused on building healthy relationships. The program is accessible to any middle school that wants it, Isaacson said, and is currently in more than 12,000 schools.
The league also began the InSideOut Initiative, which works with coaches to reduce the “win at all costs mentality” in sports, Isaacson said.
But there also need to be punitive damages, Epstein said. The message athletes receive, she argued, is that they can commit violence against women without significant reprimand.
In the settlement announcement, Goodell claimed Watson is “committed to doing the hard work on himself that is necessary for his return to the NFL.”
“Just because settlements and things like that happen, doesn’t mean that person is guilty for anything,” Watson said.
To Epstein, if Watson can’t even admit to the sexual assaults that a judge brought on by the NFL and the NFLPA determined he more likely than not committed, how can the NFL’s evaluation and treatment plan have any impact?
“Professional football cannot realistically address its violence against women problem with empty claims that it will require players to reflect and improve their behavior, while the players persist in asserting blanket denials of wrongdoing,” she said.
The league has shown it may be more prepared to handle accusations of violence against women than it was in the past. And yet the same question remains: Will it make a difference?
CNN’s Stella Chan contributed to this report.