Deborah Epstein has spent her professional life fighting for victims of domestic violence. But protecting such victims is also what Epstein says led her to step down from a commission meant to tackle the issue of domestic violence in the National Football League.
The NFL's Players Association Commission on Violence Prevention was formed after several NFL players were accused of violence against their domestic partners, including Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens, who knocked his fiancée unconscious in an elevator.
In 2014, Epstein, director of the Georgetown University Law Center's Domestic Violence Clinic, was asked to serve on the commission. She and research psychologist Lisa Goodman were authorized to conduct a national study of players' wives, collecting the women's suggestions for handling domestic violence and supporting its victims.
As she tells NPR, her decision to resign came after troubling "pattern emerged" in her communications with the NFLPA.
"I brought a number of ideas to the commission about ways in which they could deal with the domestic violence problem in the NFL," she says. The report compiled short-term and long-term recommendations.
The NFLPA heard her out, she says, but since filing the report in June 2016, "it has sat on the shelf."
"The Player's Association contacts that I have would welcome those ideas, tell me they were eminently doable, but that they had to get kicked down the road because 'It was the Super Bowl, it was the draft, it was the season,' " she says. "And I would come back and reiterate my suggestions, and eventually I found that communication would just die on the vine."
"I realized very little, if anything, was going to happen."
NFLPA said it respects Epstein's decision to resign, but has disagreed with her reasoning. NFLPA Deputy Managing Director Teri Smith says the association never had plans to publicly release the study. "We did circulate that report to our player leadership, and we have implemented a number of recommendations made by [Epstein], both in that report and over the life of the commission being in existence," Smith says.
Citing an NFLPA spokesperson, ABC News says, "Those recommendations include the hiring of a director of wellness who is a trained clinician, in depth crisis training for staff who work with players, greater emphasis on marriage counseling and enrichment events focused on couples."
Esptein, who signed a confidentiality agreement with the NFLPA, says she can't divulge what recommendations she provided in the report. Ostensibly, the confidentiality protects the anonymity of spouses and partners of NFL players from retribution, allowing them to speak freely.
"Although there are ways to create confidentiality about individual people without creating confidentiality about the recommendations that emerged from such a report, I'm not allowed to talk about either one," Epstein says.
But she will say why she thinks the actions the NFLPA says it's taken do not align with the commission's recommendations — and beyond that, she says, are "woefully inadequate."
First, she says, the hire of a director of wellness "is responsible for all wellness-related issues for more than 1,500 NFL players scattered across the country, and she has no particular training or experience in the field of domestic violence."
While Epstein says the crisis management training the NFLPA has introduced for player-interfacing staff is "terrific," crisis management as it relates to alcohol, drugs or mental health is "very different than managing a crisis of domestic violence for someone who's actually at risk of physical harm."
The NFLPA's third action, a focus on marriage counseling and couples enrichment, concerns Epstein the most.
"If you speak to anyone who works in the domestic violence field, they will tell you we have known for more than a quarter-century: that marriage-based/couples-based counseling is absolutely not the way to deal with domestic violence," she says.
"When a power dynamic in a relationship is so deeply unequal, it's not the way to go. So they are not only taking inadequate actions, they are taking actions that are not recommended by the advocacy community."
In a Washington Post op-ed earlier this month, Epstein says, "I simply cannot continue to be part of a body that exists in name only," and what, she believes is "a fig leaf."
NFLPA's Teri Smith says she's "disappointed" in Epstein's response. "It's certainly not in name only. And we've had a number of substantial changes on that landscape since the commission's inception. And we've also had fewer incidents of domestic violence reported since then as well within the NFL."
NFLPA union members (the NFL players) approved the national study. Epstein says she doesn't see "any reason why the players would object to hearing about and vetting the suggestions that the women of the NFL have said would make NFL families safer from violence. I would think they would embrace that."
But Epstein does have one recommendation she can vocalize.
"The NFL Players Association, which is not under any confidentiality agreement, take out its study, make its findings public, and go to the players and start implementing them."
NPR's Sarah Handel and Viet Le produced and edited this story for broadcast.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Deborah Epstein has spent her professional life fighting for the victims of domestic violence. She's director of the Georgetown University Law Center's domestic violence clinic and in 2014 was asked to serve on the NFL Players Association commission on violence. The commission was formed after several NFL players were accused of violence against their domestic partners, including Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens, who was seen knocking his fiance unconscious in a casino elevator. Deborah Epstein recently resigned from that commission. She wrote about it in The Washington Post. Thanks so much for being with us.
DEBORAH EPSTEIN: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: You essentially say this commission heard you out and then did nothing. What was your experience?
EPSTEIN: My experience was that I brought a number of ideas to the commission about ways in which they could deal with the domestic violence problem in the NFL, and a pattern emerged in those communications. The Players Association contacts that I had would welcome those ideas, tell me they were eminently doable, but that they had to get kicked down the road because it was the Super Bowl. It was the draft. It was the season. And I would come back and reiterate my suggestions. And eventually, I just found that communication would just die on the vine.
SIMON: You did a report, right?
EPSTEIN: That's right.
SIMON: And you talked to the wives of a lot of players.
EPSTEIN: I was authorized, along with a research psychologist, Dr. Lisa Goodman, to do a study where we talked to wives of NFL players across the country about what they thought would be the most effective, practical things the Players Association could do to reduce domestic violence and to support victims where it does occur. We wrote a report. We had short-term and long-term suggestions for dealing with the problem. We turned that report in two years ago now, and it has sat on a shelf ever since.
SIMON: Can you tell us what was in it?
EPSTEIN: I can't because the NFLPA required us to sign a confidentiality agreement before we did the study. They, however, are not...
SIMON: Now, we should explain this is ostensibly so that spouses and partners of NFL players can speak freely and don't have to worry about retribution if they're identified.
EPSTEIN: Yes, although there are ways to create confidentiality about individual people without creating confidentiality about the recommendations that emerge from such a report. I'm not allowed to talk about either one.
SIMON: Now, NFL Players Association told ABC they respect your decision to resign, but they said, we have implemented many of the commission's recommendations during the past few years. And then a spokesperson said that that includes the hiring of a director of wellness, who is a trained clinician, in-depth crisis training for players and facing staff, greater emphasis on marriage counseling and enrichment events. Are those your recommendations?
EPSTEIN: They were not the recommendations in the report, but I'd be happy to tell you why I think those actions that the Players Association says they've taken are so woefully inadequate. The first is the hire of a director of wellness, who I'm sure is extremely competent at her job. But she's responsible for all wellness-related issues for the more than 1,500 NFL players scattered across the country, and she has no particular training or experience in the field of domestic violence. That's not adequate.
They also say that they've done crisis management training for player-interfacing staff. And that's terrific. But crisis management, if it's alcohol or drug related, if it's mental health related, is very different than managing a crisis of domestic violence where someone is actually at risk of physical harm. That has not happened, to the best of my knowledge.
And finally, if you speak to anyone who works in the domestic violence field, they will tell you we have known for more than a quarter century that couples-based counseling is absolutely not the way to deal with domestic violence. When a power dynamic in a relationship is so deeply unequal, it's not the way to go. So they are not only taking inadequate actions, they are actually taking actions that are not recommended by the advocacy community.
SIMON: Do you feel like you were window dressing?
EPSTEIN: That is why I stepped down. When I first was invited to join the commission, I asked them specifically whether there was any risk of that because I did not want to participate in being window dressing on such a serious and important issue. I was told that real work would be done. But almost four years in, I've seen no evidence of that. And so I do feel like it was a fig leaf to cover up the problem. And I can't participate in that.
SIMON: The NFL Players Association is a union. They look out for their union members. Is there a difference between them looking out for their union members and you asking them to press their union members to do something?
EPSTEIN: I don't see any reason why the players would object to hearing about and vetting the suggestions that the women of the NFL have said would make NFL families safer from violence. I would think they would embrace that.
SIMON: Since you announced your resignation, wrote about your resignation, have you heard from any wives of NFL players?
EPSTEIN: Yes, I've been contacted by a number of wives of current and former NFL players about their experiences with domestic violence and their experiences with friends who have experienced domestic violence. And they talk about a broader culture of what I would have to call misogyny within the NFL.
So for example, a woman told me about wives' lunches that the Professional Football Association puts on. Women are invited to a very posh restaurant. They have lunch. They get designer swag to take home with them. And then someone comes and speaks from professional football and talks about things like, there will be nights when your husband comes home from practice and is interested in having sex and you may not be. And that is a moment when we recommend to you that you remember what your husband is doing to support your family and think about that.
Now, in an organization where women are thought of in a way that, for the rest of the world, is reminiscent of life in the 1950s, the work that has to be done to solve the problem of domestic violence needs to dig much deeper and get at the idea of what are appropriate gender roles in our culture.
SIMON: On the offhand chance somebody in the NFL is listening, give us one or two things that you think need to be done.
EPSTEIN: The one thing that I would most recommend is that the NFL Players Association, which is not under any confidentiality agreement, take out its study, make its findings public and go to the players and start implementing them.
SIMON: Deborah Epstein is director of the Georgetown University Law Center's domestic violence clinic. Thanks so much for being with us.
EPSTEIN: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: We asked the NFL Players Association for a response. Deputy Managing Director Terry Smith told us the NFLPA never had plans to release this study. It was only for internal guidance.
TERRY SMITH: We did circulate that report to our player leadership, and we have implemented a number of recommendations made by her, both in that report and over the life of the commission being in existence.
SIMON: As for what Professor Epstein said a player's wife told her about a lunch, Ms. Smith said she couldn't comment on a confidential conversation between Epstein and a player's wife. But she added...
SMITH: I don't know of the existence of any NFLPA lunches for wives. So again, I'm not really sure about that circumstance.
SIMON: Terry Smith says she's disappointed that Professor Epstein called the commission a fig leaf and that the NFL Players Association remains committed to eradicating domestic violence in the world of professional football. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.