[Editor's note: This post was written in August, before the details of the Josh Brown case were made public.]
The NFL finds itself embroiled in another domestic violence scandal as the 2016 season gets underway. The league is now being widely criticized for for its one-game suspension of New York Giants kicker Josh Brown for a May 2015 arrest.
At the time, Brown's wife told police the kicker had been violent with her more than 20 times prior to the arrest. Five days later, police set a protective order stating that Brown could not come within 500 feet of his wife. He reportedly violated that order two months later, leading to another arrest. Nevertheless, the NFL defended its decision to issue a one-game suspension by noting that Brown's wife didn't cooperate with the league's investigation and the lack of charges brought against the kicker by authorities.
The second arrest in July didn't seem to sway the league or the Giants, who re-signed Brown to a two-year, $4.75 million deal in April. Last week, Giants co-owner John Mara said he remains "comfortable" with the decision to re-sign Brown.
After the Ray Rice fiasco in 2014, the NFL instituted a baseline six-game suspension for first-time domestic violence convictions. In the two years since, there have been nine suspensions for domestic violence-related offenses, but in all but two of those, the NFL upheld suspensions of fewer than six games, according to ESPN.
The NFL noted the weaknesses of law enforcement when it created its own parallel investigation unit following the Rice fiasco, though its resources face many of the same issues, including an inability to get victims to cooperate or subpoena players. More often than not, domestic violence cases are more complex than the supposed improved structure the league created to address its shortcomings.
The league's definition of what constitutes domestic violence has also been tested. There are incidents that are indicative of abuse that may not technically involve what is called domestic violence under law but are treated as something different. This week, the league announced a two-game suspension for free agent linebacker Prince Shembo, formerly of the Atlanta Falcons, for a charge of animal cruelty for allegedly killing his ex-girlfriend's dog in 2015. Shembo was also investigated but never charged for sexual assault when he was at Notre Dame, as the accuser committed suicide 10 days after the incident.
The Falcons released Shembo in May, and no team has signed him since, so in some ways the suspension is moot for now, though it's more the principle of the thing. Killing a dog may not be a direct assault on a woman, though it proves to be considerably intimidating and psychologically damaging.
As much as the NFL wants to put the crises of two years ago behind it, the structure it put in place to fix it is just as rife with potential pitfalls. As the NFL saw with Rice, all it takes is one video surfacing to create a national issue, and while the league has stated its intent to crack down on the issue, the inconsistency seen in the length of punishment leaves the door open for further scrutiny.
Treating acts that are indicative of abuse — such as violating a protective order or killing the pet of a potential victim — could be a useful start. That means handing out the six-game suspension for these violations. Punishment in full should not have to wait until someone has suffered sufficiently to the point of being seriously injured. That's one way to take on the culture of abuse rather than just being reactive after it happens.