By Patrick O’Rourke
BU News Service
Sport has the ability to serve as a vehicle of social change, especially in Boston given the platform beset to the its sports teams and stars. It’s why Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey went to Robert Kraft, owner of the NFL’s New England Patriots, looking to spread awareness on the epidemic of relationship violence.
Game Change, a joint initiative between the New England Patriots and and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office, is designed to do just that — prevent such violence through education in the state’s high schools. The $1.5 million partnership will train students, teachers, and coaches on how to work against violence, and how to properly intervene in a situation involving violence.
Along with the Northeastern University-sponsored Mentors in Violence Program, the initiative will work with 90 schools across six regions in Massachusetts. The program is expected to be a beacon for the charge to end domestic violence, and a template for other franchises and state governments to follow.
“The more you learn about domestic violence in this country,” said Kraft, “the more you want to do to help.”
Kraft calls the statistics with regards to violence against women ‘staggering’. One in three women have been abused in a relationship. One in five women are sexually assaulted, according to a report put out by the White House in Dec. 2014. Results of a BU student survey administered earlier this year were released on Thursday. Among a sample of 5,875 respondents, approximately one in six reported being sexually assaulted while at BU.
The NFL brought the matter into the spotlight in 2014, when video surfaced of Baltimore Ravens star running back Ray Rice punching his then-girlfriend (now-wife) in the elevator of a New Jersey casino. Rice, who had already been suspended for two games for his role in the incident, was suspended when the video went public. He was released by his team.
In May 2014, Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy — then as a member of the Carolina Panthers — was accused of throwing his girlfriend into a bathtub, then tossed her onto a futon covered in rifles. He threatened to kill her. Ray McDonald, also a defensive end, has been released by two teams, the San Francisco 49ers and Chicago Bears, since December as a result of multiple domestic violence incidents.
The actions of a handful of NFL players have spoken louder than the numbers. While studies dating back as far as the 1980s indicate one in four college females have been victims of rape or attempted rape, it’s never moved the needle like the bombshell video TMZ.com released last September of Rice assaulting his girlfriend.
“The fact the video finally surfaced that showed the act [was important],” said Peter Roby, director of athletics at Northeastern and the co-chair of the 2015 Massachusetts White Ribbon Day Campaign, which is sponsored by Jane Doe Inc. “[The video] disgusted people. It disgusted sponsors. It disgusted the public. It demanded to be addressed, and it took the NFL a while to get to the right place and setting in motion ways for the league to deal with educating players with regards to sexual assault and domestic violence.”
The NFL responded by teaming up with the anti-domestic violence campaign NO MORE, running public service announcements with players. The league pledged to donate $5 million to the National Domestic Violence Hotline over a five-year period. Owners endorsed new domestic violence policies in December that included a six-game suspension for first-offenders of a crime ‘involving violent conduct’. But there’s been minimal commitment made fighting the epidemic through education and advocacy.
Healey told the Boston Globe she wasn’t impressed with how the league has responded to its domestic violence scandals. Roby doesn’t disagree.
“It’s been lacking,” he said of league action. “It’s been inappropriate, it hasn’t been thoughtful and there hasn’t been enough action. It’s one thing to say you’re disgusted, it’s another thing to put your money where your mouth is.”
The Patriots, the league’s second-most valuable team with an estimated worth of $2.6 billion, according to Forbes, has decided to put its money where its mouth is. Meanwhile the NFL’s most valuable team, the Dallas Cowboys, welcomed an unemployed Hardy with open arms in March, giving him a contract worth upwards of $13.1 million.
Healey wants to use the Patriots brand, fresh off its fourth Super Bowl victory since 2002, as an engine to educate the state’s youth on the issue to prevent such acts. The larger goal at hand here isn’t hard to miss — create a model other franchises can use to partner up with their respective states.
“This is what the NFL should be replicating and doing,” Healey told the Globe. “I hope this can be a model for owners in other states.”
To see Kraft leading the way with the cause is no surprise. The 74-year-old owner has been among the most influential in sports since buying the team in 1994. He was instrumental in getting the NFL and NFL Players Association to make a deal on the collective bargaining agreement in 2011, ending a lockout that had threatened the upcoming season. He was named the third most powerful man in sports last year by the Sports Business Journal. League commissioner Roger Goodell was fifth on that list.
Kraft’s late wife, Myra Hiatt Kraft, who died in 2011, championed the cause of putting an end to domestic violence during her life. She was well-known for her objection to the team selecting defensive tackle Christian Peter in the 1996 NFL Draft. Peter, who had a lengthy rap sheet involving violent acts against women. He was eventually released.
By ridding the organization of an individual whose criminal history was opposite of what the organization stood for back in 1996, the Kraft family brought the issue of domestic violence to the forefront. Nearly two decades later, with the issue already at the forefront, they’re advancing the cause.
“Sport plays an important role in our culture,” said Roby. “If we have a chance to bring a really important issue to light by using sport, we should do that.”
Pat O’Rourke is the sports editor for BU News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @patorourke_29.