Commentary Violence

What the Dallas Cowboys’ Signing of a Man Found Guilty of Assault Says About the NFL

Jessica Luther

The NFL and its teams seem to have no real plan to combat violence against women or enforce consequences against players who commit it.

Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of intimate partner violence.

In July 2014, a judge found then-Carolina Panther defensive end Greg Hardy guilty of assault and communicating threats against Nicole Holder, a woman he had dated. When she testified during that trial, she told the court a horrific account of the night of May 13, when, Holder said, Hardy picked her up and threw her multiple times (one time down onto a pile of loaded guns); dragged her by her hair; and ripped off her jewelry and flushed it down the toilet. At one point, Holder said, Hardy put his hands around her throat: “He looked me in my eyes and he told me he was going to kill me. I was so scared, I wanted to die. When he loosened his grip slightly, I said, ‘Just do it. Kill me.’” Another person in the house called the police, telling the dispatcher, “He’s beating her ass in there. Some girl’s getting her ass beat upstairs and I heard it. And I seen it. He is beating her ass right the fuck now.” Holder was scratched, bruised all over her body, and there was swelling on her arms and back.

Hardy was sentenced to 18 months’ probation. On Wednesday, the Dallas Cowboys signed him to a one-year contract.

When reporting on Hardy’s conviction in July, the Associated Press reported:

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Hardy’s attorney Chris Fialko said he’ll appeal and Hardy has asked for a jury trial in superior court. In North Carolina that means the terms of Hardy’s probation are on hold until the trial—so he’s free to travel with the team to training camp and compete in games.

And Carolina let him do both until September, when the angry public fervor over Ray Rice boiled over into large-scale awareness about Hardy’s case. He was then deactivated by the team and placed on National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell’s exempt list, meaning that although he could not play and the team could replace him on the roster while his case was pending, he was still paid. In late February, the Panthers released him.

Between the original bench trial in which he was found guilty and the jury trial Fialko requested on appeal, the district attorney prosecuting the case says Hardy settled with Holder in a civil suit. When the DA tried to locate Holder to have her testify again for the jury trial, they could not. There is no public documentation of the settlement and so no knowledge of whether it included an agreement not to testify, but the prosecution expected her to do so in the jury trial. When the DA last talked to her in November, she told them she did not want to testify again. She “intentionally made herself unavailable to the State,” prosecutors said in February. The result was that all charges against Hardy were dismissed last month.

We still do not know (and likely never will) why Holder chose not to testify again. Both Travis Waldron at ThinkProgress and Aaron Gordon at Vice Sports have written thoughtful pieces about why victims of domestic violence are generally reluctant to testify—fear for their safety being the main reason. We know Hardy had threatened Holder, based on what she told the court when she testified at the original trial. “He had told me in past,” she said, “if I took food out of his family’s mouth he was going to kill me.”

Hardy himself has acknowledged that when angry, he can be terrifying. In February 2014, he described to Sports Illustrated what he’s like on the field when that happens:

Once you piss me off, I forget everything. Everything after that is the monster. I’m going to take you out. When you cross that line, I’m gonna take it to a place you’ve never seen before.

Holder, based on the threats she said Hardy made towards her, very possibly feared him and any possible retaliation. It’s also jarring to read Hardy’s quote knowing that the kind of behavior Holder would fear off the field is encouraged and praised on it.

Professional football is a business, players are employees, and Hardy is not guilty under the law. But he was convicted of both committing violence against Holder and threatening her. The case fell apart during the appeal process, during which it appears Hardy and Holder interacted, at least in civil court, and we know his history of threats against her. In the end, the NFL has the legal right to hire him. No one is actually disputing that. What is being disputed is whether the NFL has a larger obligation to the community it serves, and the NFL itself has been saying since September that it does.

Dallas signed Hardy to a one-year contract with a base salary of $750,000 and millions more in incentives that could total $13.1 million if he plays next season. As Jane McManus wrote at espnW, that might not happen. The NFL is still doing its own investigation; right now, Hardy is still on Goodell’s exempt list, and it’s unclear if he’ll ever actually play for the Cowboys. The league might actually punish Hardy in the end and keep him off the field. That he can be signed in the meantime, and that a team feels it is worth the possible financial risk or public relations mess still indicates that it is worth questioning how seriously teams are taking the NFL’s own stated obligations to respond to acts of violence committed by its players.

Professional football is an incredibly popular and lucrative business. In a society whose criminal justice system is better known for failing victims of domestic abuse and/or violence than helping them, we often turn to other powerful institutions to do the cultural work of holding abusers accountable. The NFL, holding a prominent place in our community, is one of those, especially at this moment in time. Since September, there has been a huge amount of scrutiny on the league about how it handles players (less, I’ll note, about how it handles owners) who commit violence against women.

And the NFL has responded—at least in appearance. In the fall, the NFL partnered with No More, a group whose sole task is to raise awareness about violence against women. Melissa McEwan and Lauren Chief Elk have been questioning No More’s work and efficacy since January 2014. Diana Moskovitz wrote a scathing piece for Deadspin about the relationship between the NFL and No More last month. Just this past weekend, Jane Randel, No More’s co-founder and one of four women the NFL hired in September to help overhaul the league’s policies regarding violence against women, spoke on a panel at South by Southwest on violence in sports. Ben Casselman of FiveThirtyEight was the moderator; he asked Randel point-blank “how she could be sure No More was making a difference and not just providing public relations cover for the NFL.” In short, Randel didn’t actually answer Casselman, instead answering her own question of “Why are you working with them” with “Would you rather everyone step back and not work with them?” This, itself, is a construction that makes it seem like there are only two options: no one work with them, or No More does. This answer was, in microcosm, a perfect example of why people are so frustrated with No More and the NFL’s inaction on this issue. Hardy signing with Dallas is yet more evidence that the NFL’s so-called commitment to combating violence against women is nothing more than lip service.

Perhaps the NFL will do the right thing here with Hardy, but it is hard to bet on that. From all we’ve seen so far, the NFL and its teams have no real plan to combat violence against women or enforce consequences against players who commit it. Should we prepare for Hardy showing up in a No More PSA?

Even if Hardy never dons a Cowboys jersey, it matters that the Cowboys made this move. In September 2014, responding to Goodell’s punishment of Ray Rice, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said there was “a lack of tolerance” for “spousal abuse” in the NFL. This week, Jones released a statement after signing Hardy, writing, “Our organization understands the very serious nature of domestic violence in our society and in our league. We know that Greg has a firm understanding of those issues as well.”

How Dallas knows that about Hardy is unclear. From this very signing, there’s no indication that the Cowboys understand anything about the seriousness of the issue of domestic violence—or, more cynically, that they care. Certainly the team is not practicing intolerance of abuse. Mike Freeman, NFL national lead writer at Bleacher Report, wrote yesterday that by signing Hardy, “Dallas sold its soul to win.” And, Freeman argues, with Hardy they will win—because Hardy is very good at what he does.

That’s the point, though, isn’t it? That once more, the NFL and/or its teams have shown that what happens on the field matters more than what happens off it, and that violence on the field is acceptable even if it comes with that parallel behavior off the field.

Beyond all this, I’m especially saddened to see the Cowboys sign Hardy, because the team—and Dallas as a whole—have made positive moves in the past around this issue. In March 2013, I attended an anti-domestic violence rally in the city, at which multiple former and current Cowboys spoke to an audience of thousands about why it’s men who need to take the lead on ending this violence. (Rewire’s Andrea Grimes was also there and reported on it at the time.) For two years now, when I have been asked by media outlets about what teams can do to draw attention to this issue, to reach men, to be proactive instead of reactionary, and to partner with their local communities around this problem, I’ve mentioned this rally as a positive example. It will be harder to do that moving forward. I’m not sure that I will anymore.

The rally, along with the Dallas Men Against Abuse Campaign—which Cowboys players have also been involved in—have been important parts of Mike Rawlings’ tenure as mayor. As a result, Rawlings, who is currently running for re-election, has been part of major national discussions on the topic. Staying true to his message, Rawlings told the Dallas Morning News on Thursday, “I’m a big Cowboys fan. I love them to death and I want them to beat the Eagles every time they play. But at some point, being a sports fan gets trumped by being a father, husband, wanting to do what’s right for women, so this is not a good thing.”

About the rally, Andrea Grimes wrote in 2013:

Sportscaster Dale Hansen is something of a living legend in Dallas, where he’s been a nightly news staple for thirty years, building a reputation as a jokester, even a smart-ass. But he didn’t come to Saturday’s Dallas Men Against Abuse rally to talk Cowboys or make wisecracks about the Mavericks. He came to tell thousands of men what it was like growing up in an abusive home.

On Wednesday night, Hansen gave an impassioned televised speech to express his anger at the Cowboys’ decision to sign Hardy, noting that “now you can beat a woman and play with a star on your helmet.”

There’s a reason that when Rawlings decided he was going to try to end domestic violence in the ninth-largest city in the United States, he enlisted the help of not just athletes but of professional football players. They hold cultural capital, and our treatment and valorization of them reflects back at us our ideas about what it means to be a man and what behaviors we deem acceptable. Our treatment of them also then reveals which people we are willing to sacrifice in order to get the best of the sport on the field. (This is as true for off-the-field victims of their violence as it is about the brutal nature of the game for the players themselves.) This is why the Cowboys signing Hardy makes Dale Hansen mad, why Mike Rawlings says this isn’t a good thing, why Mike Freeman says the Cowboys have sold their souls, why people are so skeptical of the NFL’s relationship with No More (and with No More itself), and why we are constantly questioning the league’s commitment to their intolerance of men’s violence against women. Actions, as they say, speak louder than words.

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