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NFL wives claim league culture nurtures domestic violence

In a report by The Washington Post, two women claim the league and its players union not only failed to intervene after abuse incidents, but took steps to ensure the police were not involved.

Alex Goodlett

A culture of loyalty and silence prevents female victims of domestic abuse from speaking out, two wives of former NFL players told The Washington Post. In an article written by Simone Sebastian and Ines Bebea, the two women detail incidents of repeated abuse and claim that the league, its teams and the players union have systemically turned their back on victims in an attempt to preserve the status quo.

Dewan Smith-Williams, now separated but still married to former Saints offensive lineman Wally Williams, and the other woman, who asked to remain anonymous because her husband still has connections with the league, claimed they were inspired by the Ray Rice incident to speak out against a culture of silence that they say has only strengthened in the aftermath of the NFL's latest round of controversies.

Team coverups

In 2001, police responding to an alarm in Smith-Williams's home discovered marijuana sitting on a table, an incident that would eventually lead to her husband's arrest (but no charges). Aware of the incident, Jim Haslett, the Saints head coach at the time, visited the home to instruct the couple not to talk to the media or police. "We will handle it," he told them.

Smith-Williams said she took Haslett's comments as a general warning against taking domestic issues outside of the league circle, something she remembered in the following years as her husband's abuse became increasingly violent.

The other woman, who is also married to a former Saints player, said the team not only ignored her abuse, but allegedly took steps to keep her from talking about it. She detailed a night in the 1990s when her husband beat her for asking to leave a post-game celebration early. She said he violently dragged her out of the bar in front of teammates, took her home and began punching and kicking her. Calls from concerned neighbors brought police to the door, but her husband cleaned her up and reportedly talked his way out of charges.

The woman said she had never been contacted by the Saints until the next day, when a team representative called her out of the blue to "check on [her]." The rep did not mention the incident at the bar or the police visit, but the woman believed she was being felt out to see if she planned on involving the police.

Just two weeks ago, former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo claimed that NFL teams covered up "hundreds and hundreds" of domestic issues during his three-decade long career in the league, though he later retracted his statements after receiving criticism from within the NFL.

NFLPA's failure to intervene

In 2002, after her husband had already been arrested by police and suspended by the league for separate drug violations, Smith-Williams found marijuana in her home and confronted him about it. She said her husband flew into a rage, taking a baseball bat to the interior of the house. Recalling Haslett's instruction not to go to police, Smith-Williams instead dialed the NFLPA rep assigned to his case. She said she was instructed to let him leave the house and that someone would call back later to check in. That call back never came.

The league's culture of denial

Smith-Williams said she was forced to call police on two separate occasions in the years after the baseball bat incident -- one in 2002 when her husband allegedly shoved her against a wall and choked her and another after their separation in 2005 when he allegedly pushed her through a plate glass window. But unwilling to break the league's code of silence or endanger her husband's career, she opted not to press charges in either incident. "I didn't want the father of my children in jail," she told the Post. "I didn't want him to lose his job. Bottom line."

This is the dilemma that a large number of NFL spouses and girlfriends face, the two women claim. Among a tight-knit fraternal organization geared toward protecting the shield at all costs, they say, victims are conditioned to hold their tongue. They are effectively trapped within the system -- going to police threatens the careers of the men they rely on to support their families.

"I learned to listen and not speak," the unnamed woman said. "He would remind me of that night, how no one would care if I was gone and how the cops did [not care]. It was all about him. He reminded me that I was alone and disposable."

The NFL has significantly stiffened penalties against domestic abusers in response to the Rice controversy, something the women say will only make victims less likely to come forward.

"They use [the NFL's current policies] as leverage against you," said the ex-wife of the Saints player. "There's abuse on every team. Everybody knows, but you know not to tell."

star divide

The Post article goes into greater detail about the league's culture and the challenges it faces as it attempts to deal with players involved in domestic violence incidents and reshaping the personal conduct policy. It's well worth your time to read the whole thing.