By Andrew McLemore
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, facing widespread criticism for his handling of several recent domestic violence incidents among players, spent a couple of hours Saturday evening speaking with staffers at the National Domestic Violence Hotline just west of Austin.
The embattled leader of the NFL declined to answer questions on his way into the call center, and the center didn’t allow reporters inside.
A spokeswoman for the center said Goodell was there to observe and learn about how the organization helps victims of domestic violence by connecting them with shelters and other local resources.
“This is not something that’s been in the works for months and months,” spokeswoman Lisa Lawrence said of the visit.
Goodell pledged last week to provide long-term financial support to the hotline, where calls shot up 84 percent the week that the now-infamous video was released showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice hitting his then-fiancée in an elevator.
More than half of those calls went unanswered due to a lack of staff.
The national hotline, based in West Lake Hills, has long been short-staffed — but that’s changing with the new NFL funding.
In a letter sent Friday to league executives and team owners, Goodell said the NFL’s recent donations allowed the National Domestic Violence Hotline to hire 10 full-time staffers, with 10 more to be hired by the end of next week.
“Recent domestic violence incidents involving NFL players pushed the capacity of our organization to unprecedented levels,” said Katie Ray-Jones, the hotline’s president and chief executive officer, in a statement.
“Because of this long-term commitment by the NFL to provide the hotline with much-needed resources, our services will finally be accessible to all those who need us when they bravely take the first step to find safety and live a life free of abuse.”
Many commentators have called for Goodell’s resignation amid criticism that he failed to provide sufficiently swift and stern consequences for players accused of domestic violence.
If Goodell wants to keep his job, he must show he has genuine empathy for the women who have suffered at the hands of NFL players without immediate action by team or league officials, said Robert Boland, professor of sports business at New York University.
Saturday’s visit to the national hotline was clearly an opportunity to do that, Boland said, but it was also risky.
“It’s probably a fairly important step,” he said. “Can he show himself to be involved or is this a political visit? If you’re doing a political campaign, you don’t want to take your candidate to a photo op where he doesn’t show empathy.”
The hotline center didn’t allow the media inside during Goodell’s visit, so it’s unclear if there will be any photos of his interactions with the advocates who take calls from domestic violence victims around the country.
In his Friday letter to the team owners, Goodell outlined other steps the league is taking to address domestic violence and sexual assault.
Goodell said he and NFL executives met with DeMaurice Smith and other leaders from the players’ union to discuss personal conduct issues, “including training, education, family services, and the disciplinary process.”
The league will also devote $3 million to advertising during games promoting public service announcements titled “NO MORE.” The national campaign addresses domestic violence and sexual assault, Goodell said in his letter.
Goodell hasn’t specified how much money the league would donate to the National Domestic Violence Hotline or how long the partnership will last, and Boland said the ambiguity is likely in the commissioner’s best interest.
“They’re just beginning to understand the depth of this issue and their connection to it,” Boland said. “They’ve been very successful over the years at managing the news cycle: this has not been like that at all.”
An NFL spokeswoman told the American-Statesman the league would have no comment on the visit.
By the numbers
84 percent — Increase in calls to the National Domestic Violence Hotline during the week of Sept. 8-15, when video became public showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out his future wife in a hotel elevator
331,078 — Phone calls, online chats and text messages received in 2013 by the hotline
77,484 — Number of those calls and messages that went unanswered due to lack of staff
20 — Additional call-takers that will be hired using NFL donations to the hotline
600 to 800 — Additional calls per day the hotline can handle with those new hires
Sources: Letters by Commissioner Roger Goodell to NFL leaders; National Domestic Violence Hotline