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A Year On, Did NFL Anti-Domestic Violence Efforts Work?

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NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell holds a press conference on October 8, 2014 in New York City.

Among the countless ads airing during Super Bowl 50, there will be an anti-domestic violence spot from the group No More. It's the second consecutive year the organization's public service announcements air during the big game.

Domestic violence and the NFL have been unhappily coupled more than a few times in recent years, perhaps no more prominently than in 2014. That's when a troubling video from a hotel elevator's security camera showed Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancee Janay Palmer during an argument. They married soon after, but the Ravens cut Rice and the NFL suspended him indefinitely. He's since been reinstated but has not signed anywhere.

That video put domestic violence on the league's and the nation's front burner, if only for a moment. Kim Gandy is president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, and worked with the NFL to help shape its revised policy. She's not surprised that the nation's attention has shifted. "You go all the way back to...OJ Simpson had domestic violence in the news for awhile and it shined a strong spotlight on the issue, but then it faded," Gandy says.

Diana Moskovitz has steadily covered the NFL's domestic violence problem for Deadspin, including explosive allegations against Dallas Cowboys player Greg Hardy. She argues that the NFL had the capacity to discipline abusers even before the Rice fiasco and the new, tougher rules. "They already had pretty broad latitude to punish players severely for it," Moskovitz says, "they just weren't because it wasn't seen as that big a deal from their vantage point."

Now the NFL says it's a very big deal. The league ramped up its punishment for domestic violence infractions steeply, and got push-back from the players' union for unilaterally changing the rules. "I understand the union's perspective around due process," says Cynthia Hogan, who handles public policy issues for the NFL, "but honestly, I felt that --and I think the Commissioner felt-- it was most important to let people know how we perceived this conduct."

Some players had been involved in domestic violence education way before the League was, including William Gay of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Gay's stepfather killed his mother when he was 8; he's used his fame as a platform for domestic violence awareness, and he's been active in the NFL's campaign.

Now a year after the first Super Bowl PSA, is there a way to measure if it's working? Confidentiality rules prevent the NFL from revealing whether team wives and girlfriends are reporting abuse. But it's logical to think that some may fear personal retaliation or the loss of their partner's job. NFL director of Social Responsibility Anna Isaacson explains "we get it; we understand how difficult it is to report. That issue is not unique to the NFL."

But the NFL has unique visibility.

Hogan says the league has made a long-term commitment to combat domestic violence and sexual assault and will continue to educate the NFL family and the general public on ways to identify signs of trouble. And the NFL is committing $5 million a year for five years to the National Domestic Violence Hotline so more women can be served.

Isaacson believes the hotline is making a difference in the Washington, D.C., area, one of the places that's received funding. "Over the first six months of 2015, they answered more than 50,000 more calls than they were able to answer in the year before," she says, "and those calls keep going up now that we're in 2016."

Gandy says most people now know domestic violence is wrong, and that the next challenge is getting those people to "identify it in other people, in people that you love," and take action to stop it.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit

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