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Ray McDonald, the NFL and Ignoring Victims

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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NFL teams should probably know by now that when it comes to players charged with multiple violent crimes, where there's smoke, there's probably fire. Yet the standard response from those in charge has simply been to unscrew the smoke detector.

The Chicago Bears have released defensive end Ray McDonald after his arrest Monday on suspicion of misdemeanor domestic violence and child endangerment. A lieutenant on the scene told one reporter that he "physically assaulted the victim while she was holding a baby." It's his third such incident in less than a year: Last August, McDonald was arrested on suspicion of felony domestic abuse while with the San Francisco 49ers. Police would later confirm that his fiancee, who was pregnant, had "visible injuries" on her arms and neck. In December, a woman accused McDonald of sexually assaulting her while she was unconscious in his home. The 49ers finally released him. McDonald hasn't been formally charged in either case, and is now suing his sexual assault accuser for defamation of character. 

After a lengthy investigation, the NFL concluded that McDonald's first domestic violence incident didn't violate the league's revamped personal conduct policy, allowing him to sign with the Bears. The investigation into the sexual assault accusation remains ongoing. 

But McDonald's latest arrest calls into question the thoroughness of investigations by the league and the teams that decide whether to keep or add accused players on their rosters. Bears owner George McCaskey was initially against signing McDonald, but after the team's own investigation and much lobbying from new general manager Ryan Pace, McCaskey agreed to bring McDonald on board, "impressed with how sincere he was and how motivated he is."

Now, the Bears were forced to backtrack. "We believe in second chances, but when we signed Ray we were very clear what our expectations were if he was to remain a Bear," Pace said in a statement. "He was not able to meet the standard and the decision was made to release him."

It echoes the words from 49ers general manager Trent Baalke in explaining the team's decision to cut McDonald back in December: "While this organization has a strong belief in due process, and has demonstrated that over time, Ray has demonstrated a pattern of poor decision-making that has led to multiple distractions for this organization and this football team that really can no longer be tolerated."

Sure, second chances are warranted, redemption and rehabilitation are possible, and a thorough investigation of the facts is important to protect the rights of individuals. But due process can't come at the expense of due diligence -- not with the high costs of letting sexual violence go untreated and undeterred. 

There's a clear common factor among teams (and the league) demonstrating their own "pattern of poor decision-making" when it comes to violence against women. It stems from the most glaring hole in these investigations: failure to interview the victim.

EspnW's Jane McManus characterizes the "laughably one-sided due-dilligence process" in which the Bears interviewed many people from the player's camp -- McDonald, his mother, his college coach, Urban Meyer -- and not a single person from the accuser's side. Understanding that the victim herself might not always be cooperative, a team could at the very least reach out to her attorney or the arresting officers involved in the case. But McCaskey's explanation for why no such effort was made speaks volumes: "An alleged victim, I think -- much like anybody else who has a bias in this situation -- there's a certain amount of discounting in what they have to say."

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers used similar logic in defending their decision not to include any of Jameis Winston's accusers among the 75 people interviewed during the vetting process of their No. 1 draft pick. "We read the depositions. We knew what she was going to say," general manager Jason Licht told Sports Illustrated's Peter King earlier this month. "This was a thorough investigation. We were not going to mistake charisma for character."

Both statements willfully ignore the inherent bias of a player desperate to convince the public of his innocence in order to maintain (or start) his professional football career. Both statements assume there's nothing valuable to be gleaned from speaking face-to-face to a woman who says she's been attacked by the guy you want to spend millions on. And both statements automatically and overtly dismiss the validity of what the victim has to say. "Charismatic Jameis Winston" certainly managed to ease doubts about his troubled history. If McDonald had managed to stay out of trouble for more than 62 days after signing with the Bears, he might have succeeded, too.

As we've seen this offseason with the Bears and McDonald and with the Dallas Cowboys signing Greg Hardy, front offices will do as much diligence as necessary to let them to add the players they want. Teams use a self-induced tunnel vision allowing them to overlook the most egregious offenses and the most obvious patterns of violent behavior. Often, this mentality spreads across the locker room, with teammates sticking up for players in the same tone as their bosses. It's encouraging, then, to see some members of the NFL family break the unwritten code.

"I wouldn't really enjoy being in the locker room with someone I knew was a domestic violence person," Cowboys great Roger Staubach said about Hardy. "I would have really had a hard time with a teammate that you look at as a courageous, tough guy on the football field ... to abuse a women in any shape or form, there's just no excuse for it."

And just minutes after Chicago released McDonald, Bears offensive tackle Kyle Long tweeted his reaction:

Here's hoping the rest of the league shares his sentiment.

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