Long before the alarming video of Ray Rice’s elevator punch rocked the NFL and led to a national conversation about domestic violence, the Miami Dolphins had dealt with sporadic domestic assault issues over the years. Five Dolphins have been arrested in domestic disputes since 2000.
In some cases, the team’s action was swift and severe, such as coach Joe Philbin’s decision to waive Chad “Ocho Cinco” Johnson in August 2012, less than 24 hours after the player was arrested for head-butting his wife. Johnson never played for another NFL team.
Philbin’s conversation with Johnson informing him he was being released was shown on the HBO Hard Knocks series that season. Philbin won’t discuss his handling of specific disciplinary issues, but his actions indicate he has no tolerance for off-field violence. Shortly after being hired in 2012, he traded Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall, who had a long string of legal troubles, including domestic violence.
The other four incidents were before Philbin’s arrival. One led to a single-game, NFL-mandated suspension. The others went unpunished. There were no videos-gone-viral of those incidents. Had there been, the outcomes might have been different.
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Take the case of tight end Randy McMichael. He stumbled into his Weston home around 4 a.m. after a long evening celebrating his 25th birthday with friends. He got sick over a toilet bowl, and his wife Cawanna, six months pregnant, slapped him because she was angry he was drunk and stayed out so late.
McMichael, who is 6-3 and 247 pounds, shoved her, she fell to the floor, and they argued. He called police. They were both arrested. He was charged with aggravated battery on a pregnant woman. She was charged with domestic battery.
Charges were eventually dropped. McMichael remained on the Dolphins roster and caught a team-high 73 passes the next season. Thirteen months later, McMichael was arrested again after leaving his wife with a bloody nose in a Waffle House parking lot in Georgia. He pleaded guilty to criminal trespassing, was fined $500 and served three months’ probation.
He was never suspended by the Dolphins, and the NFL docked him one week’s pay. McMichael stayed with the team, signed an $18 million contract extension and stuck until March 2007. He went on to play six more years for the St. Louis Rams and San Diego Chargers.
The Dolphins’ coach during McMichael’s troubles was Nick Saban, who once told a Miami Herald reporter: “I’m not running the Father Flanagan boys’ home,” when asked about bringing in players with checkered pasts.
McMichael’s arrests were in 2004 and 2005, a decade before the video that will forever change the way the NFL — and its fans — look at domestic violence. In the video released by TMZ, Baltimore Ravens running back Rice is seen knocking his then-fiancee unconscious in an Atlantic City casino elevator and dragging her motionless body into the hallway.
It has become another public relations nightmare for the $10 billion NFL, whose appeal is based on televised aggression but whose image is being battered by violence off the field.
The NFL is under fire over a series of incidents that include high-profile players such as Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy. On Wednesday, Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer was arrested on charges he head-butted his wife, punched her and broke her nose after she refused his sexual advances. He was deactivated from all team activities and will not play the rest of this season.
Beleaguered NFL commissioner Roger Goodell declared in a press conference Friday: “I got it wrong on a number of levels, from the process I led to the decisions that I reached. But now I will get it right. … We will get our house in order.”
He said he has not considered resigning despite pressure from some women’s groups and league sponsors.
Goodell said he is focusing on his job, and the league will begin supporting the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. He is mandating education and training for all players during the next month. Each of the league’s 32 teams is receiving a list of domestic violence agencies within their communities to use as a resource.
“At our best, the NFL sets an example that makes a positive difference. Unfortunately, over the past several weeks we have seen all too much of the NFL doing wrong, and that starts with me.”
The uproar last October was over bullying and racism in the locker room after Jonathan Martin accused Dolphins teammate Richie Incognito of tormenting him. Now, the highly charged national narrative is about domestic violence — and the league’s perceived soft stance against it.
The Dolphins are not at the center of the controversy this time, but once again, they find themselves defending their league and collective character. They are attempting to dispel the notion that they are members of a group of testosterone-driven, wife-beating, child-abusing thugs.
“One of the ways we can continue to show people this is a league of men, like any other workforce, is to continue doing our jobs with integrity,” said Dolphins defensive lineman Jared Odrick. “A lot of us do that day to day, but that’s not very interesting to you, not very interesting to other people watching the NFL.
“People aren’t as excited about Olivier Vernon giving away free backpacks to a bunch of underprivileged kids and teaching them life tips, or me providing kids with back-to-school haircuts, or my charity golf event for first-responders and autistic kids. There’s so much more that goes on with NFL players. … It’s unfortunate all the good things don’t get illuminated, no video showing those things.”
Philbin said stigmatizing NFL players as violent off the field is unfair.
“It’s like when you watch the 6 o’clock local news, you see some horrific things, so you could say, ‘Oh my God, look at all these demons that live in South Florida,’” Philbin said. “The NFL is a little like that. It gets a lot of attention and publicity. Just because there’s one individual case here and there doesn’t necessarily mean there aren’t outstanding men that work in this profession. There certainly are.”
Statistics show NFL players are arrested at a far lower rate for all crimes — 13 percent as likely as a non-football player — than the national average for men in their age range, and are about half as likely to be arrested for domestic assault as nonfootball players. The findings, compiled by stat-crunching website fivethirtyeight.com, compared the USA Today NFL arrest database, which goes back to 2000, with the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Studies using FBI statistics and the San Diego Union Tribune NFL Arrest Database have come up with similar numbers.
“These men are not committing crimes or abusing their spouses or children at a higher rate than the general populous,” said Alicia Jessop, a former prosecutor who teaches sports law at the University of Miami. “The people I prosecuted for domestic violence ran the gamut from wealthy CEOs to homeless people to teachers to athletes. I prosecuted every type of person under the sun for domestic abuse. This isn’t an issue that’s limited to one profession. I think what is really going on is society’s fascination with the NFL.”
If there had been a video of Dolphin Damion McIntosh’s shove of his wife on Feb. 15, 2006, chances are it would have been even more scrutinized than it was. Police arrived at his Plantation home and found his wife, Precious, face down on the bathroom floor after hitting her head. McIntosh admitted he had pushed her.
“They had helicopters over my house, showing my address, telling people exactly where I live,” McIntosh told reporters then. “It brought me a lot of shame. I grew up here. This is my hometown. People looked at me like I’m a monster. They didn’t know the facts. They just saw me as a wife-beater.”
The charges against McIntosh were dropped because there was insufficient evidence to rule it a crime. According to court records, “it [was] clear from the evidence that the push was a reaction to Precious McIntosh admittedly attempting to bite Damion McIntosh.”
McIntosh was released for salary-cap reasons a few weeks after his arrest but then re-signed to a one-year contract.
In the other two Dolphin cases, defensive tackle Tony McDaniel was arrested on Feb. 6, 2010, on misdemeanor battery charges after allegedly getting into a fight with his girlfriend. He was suspended by the NFL for one game under the personal conduct policy. He pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct, received six months’ probation and was ordered to attend counseling. McDaniel played two more seasons with the Dolphins following the suspension, and went on to win a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks last season.
On May 26, 2010, defensive end Phillip Merling was arrested and charged with aggravated battery on his pregnant girlfriend. Charges were dropped, and Merling remained on the team one more year. He is a free agent.
NFL teams do extensive background checks before they sign players. But they do sometimes take risks and sign troubled players, hoping their behavior will change.
In 1997, the Dolphins signed Lawrence Phillips, who arrived with a long rap sheet. He played only two games and was released after he pleaded no contest to assaulting a woman in a Plantation nightclub. He is now serving a 31-year prison sentence in California for attacking his former girlfriend and for driving his car into three teenagers in 2005.
Some eyebrows were raised when the Dolphins signed Incognito because he had a history of anger issues. He is no longer with the team after last season’s bullying scandal.
The league has made a concerted effort to police morality among its 1,700 players, and arrests have decreased since 2007, when Goodell initiated a “personal conduct policy” that said players need to be held to a higher standard to protect the image and integrity of the league.
Under that clause, players who are convicted of an offense, plead guilty to a lesser offense or plead no contest face the possibility of a “fine, suspension without pay and/or banishment from the League.”
He updated the rule after the Rice incident, declaring that players charged with domestic violence would face a mandatory six-game suspension.
The league mandates that teams conduct player development seminars to help athletes with issues away from the field. The Dolphins have taken it a step further, hiring Kaleb Thornhill as Director of Player Engagement. He helps players with everything from transitioning into and out of the league to money management, continuing education, and family counseling. Thornhill offers 50 sessions per year, some of which specifically deal with domestic violence.
“It’s a shame not all players take advantage of those resources because they have been very helpful to me,” Dolphins safety Michael Thomas said. “The vast majority of us are trying to do the right thing. I hope people realize that.”
Odrick accepts that men in his profession are scrutinized more heavily than the average employee.
“I understand we’re different, and everything we do is magnified,” Odrick said. “The plumber or taxi driver doesn’t do his job in front of 100,000 people, millions watching on TV. It’s something you accept at a young age because we have always been in a spotlight, knew people were watching us. Society pays us, deems us worthy of those salaries, so they hold us to a high standard.”
He does not, however, understand when Anheuser Busch criticizes the league for domestic violence, as the beer company did last week in a terse statement.
“If an alcohol company’s going to talk about domestic violence, I’ll talk about a few situations in which alcohol has induced some of those situations,” Odrick said. “It’s unfortunate when you have the pot calling the kettle black.”
As the league scrambles to deal with the fallout from the Rice case, the public continues to debate the issue.
“I think there is something good that can come from putting such a sharp focus on the bad apples,” said Jessop, the UM professor. “It forces our society to have really tough conversations they may not have otherwise. Look at Michael Vick. None of us talked about animal abuse, but then, when a famous quarterback goes to jail for it, it’s dinner conversation. Maybe it will be the same with Ray Rice.”