Rockefeller: Professional Sports Leagues Must Do More to Address Domestic Violence

Chairman calls on leagues to implement uniform policies that would punish players who commit violent acts

December 2, 2014

Sports have always played a significant cultural role in the United States.  Just last week on Thanksgiving, millions of Americans tuned in to watch three NFL games – yearly games that have become almost as much a part of the Thanksgiving tradition as the turkey itself. Athletes, too, have been cultural icons in American history, and, whether we like it or not, they have served as role models for our youth. Generations of children have grown up watching sporting events with their parents – it’s a family affair – and game-day traditions have been handed down from one generation to the next. Kids wear the jerseys of their favorite players, collect their cards, and hang their posters on their walls.

Given this reality, I don’t want to hear any patronizing lectures about how domestic violence is a larger, societal problem and not unique to sports. Of course, we all know that. Of course, we all know that domestic violence is a criminal act, and we as a nation must collectively and aggressively address this terrible problem. But given the high-profile nature of professional sports, when a celebrity athlete is charged with committing domestic violence, it uniquely reverberates throughout our society. And because professional sports enjoy unique benefits bestowed upon them by the public – such as public funds for stadiums or exemptions from anti-trust laws – it is entirely proper for this Committee to focus its attention on how professional sports leagues and their unions are handling the problem of domestic violence within their ranks.

Consequently, at today’s hearing, I want to learn what the four major professional sports leagues and their players’ associations are doing to address this problem. I want to know if they are developing uniform policies that will effectively and appropriately punish players who commit violent criminal acts against women and children. I want to learn what the leagues can already do with their existing authorities and what must be the subject of new collective bargaining.

I also want to be clear:  the problem of domestic violence in professional sports is not a problem unique to the NFL. While the NFL has made most of the recent headlines – both for shocking, high-profile incidents and for the league’s controversial response – all of the professional sports leagues represented here today have a problem with athletes or employees who have committed violent, criminal acts. And up until very recently, the leagues’ records have not been very good. There is a long list of players in the NFL, NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball who have been charged with, and in some cases convicted of, domestic violence, and the leagues have done little to nothing in response.  In fact, the press has reported that a culture of silence within the leagues often prevents victims from reporting their abuse to law enforcement. This has to change.

Lastly, I want to express my disappointment with the leagues and their unions for not sending their top officials to this hearing. Some of the invited witnesses didn’t even send executives; some sent outside counsel. The sole exception is the National Basketball Players Association and its Executive Director, Michele Roberts. Ms. Roberts, I want to thank you for appearing before us today. I’ve been told that long-standing travel plans and ongoing investigations are the reasons why the commissioners and the other executive directors cannot be here today. I don’t accept that. Travel plans can be changed. This Committee has held hearings in which CEOs of companies under criminal investigation have testified. When witnesses refuse to show up and testify, my experience tells me that they are afraid of something. And given the scope and severity of this problem, I find their absence troubling.