"I have a question ..."

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Talking Football With Gloria Allred

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Each day that passes without further clarity on the National Football League's process for disciplining players simply creates more questions surrounding its personal conduct policy.

The inquisitor of late is high-profile women's rights lawyer Gloria Allred, who sent a letter two weeks ago to the NFL on behalf of a client who alleges she was raped by a player. On Wednesday, Allred met with newly appointed league representatives tasked with addressing the NFL's ongoing issues with domestic violence and sexual assault.

The league has taken several steps lately to deal with the public outrage over its inconsistent handling of players such as Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and Jonathan Dwyer. These include: modifying the personal conduct policy to include more specific actions for domestic violence education, outreach, investigation and punishment; promoting a female executive, Anna Isaacson, to the role of vice president of social responsibility to oversee its community programs; and hiring an all-woman team of senior advisers who have extensive experience dealing with partner violence.

These moves have yet to yield any tangible results, or provided any clarity. The promotion of women to high-level positions will always be positive news in the NFL, which boasts the worst record among the four major sports leagues when it comes to gender-hiring practices. But until now, the new VP of Social Responsibility has simply spouted the same NFL talking points we're used to hearing from male voices, while even Allred failed to get any real answers from the expert advisers with whom she met two days ago.

Yesterday, Allred addressed an audience (including me) at espnW's annual women in sports summit, relaying the pressing queries she had for the league and the non-answers she received from the NFL's advisers. The meeting coincided with another woman accusing the same player Allred's client has accused, whom we now know to be Dallas Cowboys safety C.J. Spillman, of attempted rape last year while he was a member of the San Francisco 49ers. The full list of questions can be found here, but the essence of Allred's inquiry centers around the league's uneven interpretation and enforcement of its own personal conduct policy.

Namely: When should a player be kept off the field? (The Cowboys have asserted that Spillman will continue to suit up amid the investigation.) Allred notes that while Spillman has yet to be formally charged, both alleged victims have filed reports with the police. That should spur some kind of action from the league; filing charges carries more weight than a mere accusation, as filing false charges is an offense in itself. And it's not enough to say the NFL should wait until these cases play out in the courts; as the league's own personal conduct policy states, "the standard of conduct for persons employed in the NFL is considerably higher" than those imposed by the criminal justice system.

That concession leads directly into Allred's next point: What exactly is the burden of proof the league is using in its investigation? According to Allred, the advisers "had no answer. They have no idea what the rules are going to be." They apparently plan to report their findings with no actionable recommendations, leaving it up to commissioner Roger Goodell and his own team of advisers to discern an appropriate course of action from their conclusions.

Finally, Allred wants to know about consequences, not just for Spillman, but also potentially for the Cowboys, 49ers and the NFL itself, which states in its personal conduct policy that failure to report violations will result in considerable discipline. As with the Rice incident, there are several questions surrounding what the league knew and when. The NFL claims it first heard of the accusations from Allred's letter, a statement we should take with a healthy dose of salt given the league's missteps during the Rice investigation. And with all the allegations of at best willful ignorance, at worst active cover-up, by the Baltimore Ravens, it's not a stretch to think the Cowboys or 49ers would do whatever it takes to bury the scandal.

Yes, Allred has gotten plenty of criticism as a publicity hound. But even her critics should feel that in this case, it's a good thing. The NFL is obsessed with protecting its image, and the more this issue plays out in public the better.

When the NFL announced its new initiatives, much of the response was, "Great. Now what?" The league is still struggling to chart that path. Spillman is the first case that will test the NFL's new policies, setting an importance precedent in a more scrutinized environment than the league has ever found itself. But it's been weeks now, and the NFL is still trying to "get its house in order." It could be even longer, with former Federal Bureau of Investigation director Robert Mueller's investigation into the Rice debacle projected to last anywhere from one to several months.

That's too much time for the league to bide as it tries to figure out how to balance appropriate discipline with its ultimate mandate: protecting its brand. As Allred told us, all the NFL is charged with is trying to "follow its own rules." As more time passes, and the more the pressure on the league to do so dissipates, the more we can be sure that real change will forever be several months away. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net