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Players don't think the NFL's domestic violence training is working

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The NFL requires every player to take domestic violence training, but the mandatory program isn't connecting with its audience.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

One day this past fall, Kalimah Johnson spoke to the Detroit Lions players about domestic violence. As an expert in domestic violence and sexual assault, she starts off her homemade presentation with a poem. A former spoken word poet, she chooses her words deliberately and delivers them powerfully and without reservation.

As she continues her talk, the power point slides move on to describe the death of a male domestic violence victim, a warning to men in violent relationships that things can go badly. She talks about misogynistic song lyrics and violence as self defense, and throughout the presentation, she uses images designed to get a reaction, including pictures of battered women. As a three-time domestic violence and sexual assault survivor, she speaks from experience but without judgment.

"Most men don't do this," says Johnson. "Most men don't agree with violence against women. But good, well-meaning men don't know how to talk to men and hold other men accountable who are doing it."

Her presentation is a bit makeshift and very much the opposite of the polished training that the NFL presents to the players. That may be a good thing, because according to the players, the league's domestic violence training is incredibly flawed.

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In February of 2014, Ravens running back Ray Rice was arrested for assaulting his then-fiancee in an elevator in Atlantic City. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell handed Rice a two-game suspension, a decision that was widely criticized as insufficient. When a video of the incident surfaced showing Rice knocking his fiancee out with a violent punch, the league was forced to suspend him indefinitely. Adrian Petersen was indicted in September 2014 for child abuse and former NFL player Darren Sharper has spent much of 2015 pleading guilty to multiple sexual assaults in three states. The NFL had a three-headed PR nightmare on their hands.

The NFL created their own training in response to the public outcry over the bungling way the league handled these and other disciplinary issues. Domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault were combined into one program, created under the guidance of Anna Isaacson, whose official title is VP of Social Responsibility. Isaacson was appointed to that position in September 2014, and until then had limited experience with domestic violence training.

Working with a team of domestic violence experts appointed by the NFL, her team put together the course that is mandatory for every player in the league. It can also be taken by webinar if a scheduling conflict prevents a player from attending in person. According to Isaacson, the course was presented to more than 5,000 players in person and another 700 by self-proxied webinar.

Isaacson and her team began working on the training in September of 2014. At the owner's meeting in early October, she promised it would be completed by the end of the month. In November they began presenting the program to the players and were finished with 32 teams by the end of the year.

In speaking with various players on different teams throughout the season it became clear that the program is missing the mark with some. The majority of the players spoken to just didn't feel that the program works.

The most common opinion was that the program's tone treated the players as a group of perpetrators instead of as individuals. One revealed that he felt guilty after walking out of his seminar, even though he hadn't done anything.

The National Football League Players Association, the union that represents the players, says they've reached out to the league multiple times with offers to work together to help make the program more effective. According to the NFLPA, while they did meet with the NFL, none of their suggestions for changes were used, and in a closed door meeting to discuss the personal conduct policy in the fall, a league executive expressed a deeply troubling sentiment.

"The response to suggestions on our approach was, ‘Look, players are perpetrators,' and the inference was that they should be treated as such," said Teri Patterson, Special Council for the NFLPA. "So, we took issue with that."

SB Nation confirmed with multiple union representatives that "players are perpetrators" was a direct quote attributed to an unnamed NFL executive.

"The response to suggestions on our approach was, ‘Look, players are perpetrators,' and the inference was that they should be treated as such. So, we took issue with that." - Teri Patterson, Special Council for the NFLPA

That attitude is incongruous with the statistics that show that the NFL's rate of arrest for violent crimes falls well below the national average. The majority of players who took issue with the league's training spoke off the record, for fear of creating a problem with the league, but Eric Winston of the Cincinnati Bengals was willing to talk on record.

"I don't think the league has done the players a service," Winston said during a phone interview. "They haven't approached them in an educational way that, if there is some symptoms or there is some precursors, perhaps, like, ‘Hey, if you're experiencing these things or thinking these things, why don't we talk about it.' Instead of taking a tone that's ‘We can educate you, we can help you,' it's ‘You're a bad person.'"

So how is it possible that some players could walk away with such strong negative feelings about the program? A tight timeline and lack of consistency seem to be the answer.

In order to reach all 32 teams in eight weeks, Isaacson says she used 10-15 people with varying degrees of experience in the domestic violence field to administer the training in 60-minute sessions. There was no playbook or manual to keep the presentations exactly the same in tone and discussion, which meant that while the 26-minute power point remained constant, the other 34 minutes of training varied depending on who was giving each session. None of the sessions were videotaped, so there is no accounting for how each individual actually presented the material to each team, and no ability to watch presentations back to see where improvements can be made.

When asked if any of the people involved in giving the training in person had personal experience with domestic violence, Isaacson said she was unsure. Most of the people involved were some sort of authority figure -- a former prosecutor, for instance -- and none of the former players used as presenters had ever faced disciplinary action. So while they certainly speak from authority, none can speak from experience.

By some metrics, the NFL says that the program sees results. According to Isaacson, 80 percent of players leaving the session knew who to report to if they suspect instances of abuse, as opposed to only 34 percent before. But knowing who to go to after the fact isn't solving the problem.

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For the last seven years, the Lions have had Johnson, an expert in domestic violence issues in Detroit, come in to speak to their rookies about the issue. Dr. Galen Duncan, the team's Director of Player Development, is a college friend of hers and sits on the board of advisors for Johnson's non-profit, the SASHA Center.

Despite the NFL's official training, head coach Jim Caldwell asked her to expand her duties this past season and address the entire team, in addition to a separate program for the rookies. It's unclear if the extra training is just supplemental, or a reaction to player response in an effort to make up for what the league's training seems to be lacking. Multiple interview requests to multiple people within the Lions organization for this story went unanswered.

Johnson had positive things to say about the NFL's training, but also recognized that there may be a disconnect between the message and the players that message is designed to reach. Her focus on education and anger management techniques is designed to help stop instances of abuse before they happen.

"What I found in doing that work was that there were specific things that were a little different for African Americans in dealing with the issue of domestic violence and sexual assault in terms of the language, the way that they deal with trauma, the way that they've been informed about the way that they deal with trauma," says Johnson. "We definitely will service anyone, regardless of race, but we talk about historical trauma, meaning that the way African-Americans deal with sexual assault, partner violence and child abuse is reared from their experience and is directly related to slavery in this country."

Johnson cites Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome, a term coined by researcher and editor, Dr. Joy Degruy. One of the patterns of behavior attached to the theory of P.T.S.S. is a marked propensity for anger and violence.

It's certainly not a concept you'll see in any sanctioned training given by the NFL, and there are fundamental issues in using it to educate to a group of men who don't all share the same cultural background, but Johnson says her direct approach and outside the box delivery forces the players to pay attention.

Johnson's training, which SB Nation has seen a copy of and a representative from the NFL has seen in person, follows what she says is a method that allows her to better connect with players on a personal level. She didn't create the training for players of a specific race, and uses the 90 minutes she is given to educate the players on warning signs and anger management. She also uses the time to promote discussion among teammates. The focus is on the players as individuals, and encourages them to break into smaller groups for peer discussion and support.

In contrast, the online version of the NFL's official program, which accompanies the in person presentation, is just over 26 minutes long. Of that time, 11 minutes and 30 seconds is devoted to domestic violence, with only 28 seconds spent specifically on warning signs and escalation.

Johnson says a few other NFL teams had asked her about conducting training for them, but stopped calling when the league mandated their own presentation.

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While there is merit in the simple fact that the league has responded with training, these conversations show that domestic violence education, just like any crisis-driven training that came before it, requires a more personal approach and better oversight than what the league is currently offering.

"These aren't cookie cutter issues," says Winston, of the one-size-fits-all approach. "Every guy has had a different childhood, everybody has had a different upbringing. Every guy has a different sense of what life really is, unfortunately, and that's not always good. But it is what it is, and so instead of educating the guys and helping them to become better husbands and better parents, they're just saying, ‘This is right and this is wrong and this is what you're going to get suspended for.' Until we get past that and until we get to a point where we're really educating guys and helping guys and preventing things, these issues are going to continue."

According to Isaacson, while the training materials are evolving, there is no current plan to change the way the course is administered.

"Unfortunately there are some incidents and they have to be dealt with," says Winston. "But how do we deal with them and how do we go about preventing them in the best way. And that's what we're advocating for. Instead of let's take this blanket approach, we should take a more nuanced, educated approach to this and let's have real people go into these team rooms and maybe we can get something out of this. Maybe we can do something that changes a life."