Football player’s parable


Now that the weekly Monday morning status meeting was over, the group of analysts turned, naturally, to a lively conversation about the weekend’s football games. The eight of them had the usual rambling discussion of dropped passes, blown coverages, dubious penalty calls and spectacular plays. Then, seemingly on a whim, Sarah, one of the analysts, said, “Hey Rob, here’s a serious question for you. What do you think the NFL should do about that player who was videotaped punching his then-fiancée in a hotel elevator? You’ve been following that story, haven’t you?”

“Sure,” Rob replied. “I think they blew it when they let him off easy, they were right to throw the book at him, and that judge’s decision overturning the lifetime suspension doesn’t mean any team should pick him up. The league, and society in general, needs to make a serious statement that domestic violence shouldn’t be condoned, period.”

“Agreed,” Sarah said, “But consider: His victim forgave him and married him. If he never plays again in the NFL, she’s out several million dollars. If he’s severely punished, she ends up getting burned. Does that bother you?”

“I still think there has to be a serious consequence so other people won’t think it’s OK to act that way,” Rob said. “Athletes are role models for kids, like it or not, and we have to keep that in mind.”

A few in the group nodded in agreement, while others looked uneasy.

“I’ll concede all of that,” Sarah said, “but there’s actually a policy question here that we might want to give some thought. We have domestic violence issues among military personnel, too, and so far we don’t have a well-established policy about how to deal with them. A lot is left to commanders’ discretion. You can see that Congress and the media will not put up with that for long now that the issue has gotten such widespread attention. For some other acts, like drug abuse and non-violent crimes, we see a lot of people sent into counseling and rehab for first and second offenses. Is a ‘one strike, you’re out’ policy the best balance between condemning domestic violence and giving people a chance to redeem themselves – and preserve careers in which the country has invested a lot of resources?”

Paul chimed in, “I see your point, but I’d hate to have to explain it to a news reporter or a congressional aide.”

“And that,” Sarah affirmed, “is exactly why we should be doing some thinking. We all know how easy it is to end up with bad policies because the decision-makers wanted to look like they were doing something good but never worked through the consequences.

“Just think, in the NFL the players are all male, but we have females in the military,” Sarah continued. “No one here said that the football player’s wife just stayed around for the money. But I’ve seen comments like that online from other people, making the victim seem unworthy of consideration because her interests didn’t fit the ‘punish the perpetrator’ narrative. I wanted to ask them, what ever happened to ‘listen to the victim and respect her preferences’? And I can’t wait to see how those advocates’ whole line of argument might change when the gender of the abuser/breadwinner and the victim are the reverse of this case.”

“So what do you think we should do?” Jane inquired. “You know that ‘study the situation’ is a course of action that won’t satisfy the advocates for doing something drastic. They’ll accuse us of stalling, effectively condoning abuse, blocking appropriate sanctions against grievous offenses. Right?”

“Well,” Sarah responded, “the first thing I’d say is, opposing capital punishment doesn’t mean you’re in favor of murder, does it? In fact, most prosecutors I know hate the death penalty, especially if it’s mandatory for the crime, because the more severe the penalty, and the less discretion about imposing it, the harder it is to obtain a conviction. Severity of penalty deters less than the likelihood of some punishment. States that have abolished the death penalty generally have lower murder rates. And we seem to be coming around as a society, admittedly slowly, to the idea that rehab and probation work better for first-time drug offenders than automatic prison terms.

“It’s good to deter people from committing offenses, and to take likely repeat offenders out of circulation, but the most important effect of proper law enforcement is to prevent future offenses,” Sarah continued. “Making punishments more severe doesn’t always do that. And the best chance to prevent major domestic violence is counseling after a minor incident. So if we have a ‘tipping point’ policy, so nothing gets reported until it’s major, we lose our best opportunity for prevention.

“And here’s another thing,” Sarah went on. “Military people are mostly young. They’re less set in their ability to weigh their actions and contemplate consequences. In fact, we like them young, because they’re easier to train. And they’re also more likely than people in other occupations to suffer traumatic brain injuries, which impair judgment even more. Don’t we need to take all these factors into account?”

“So you’d argue for some sort of gentler, nuanced policy?” Rob asked.

“As I said,” Sarah reiterated, “I don’t have a strong opinion about what the best policy would be. I think we all agree that we have to take a strong stand against domestic abuse, certainly that’s my view, but the question is how. And what I am ready to argue strongly for is careful consideration of that question before a policy gets decided by knee-jerk advocacy.”

Doug Samuelson ( is president and chief scientist of InfoLogix, Inc., in Annandale, Va., and a senior operations research analyst with Group W, Inc., in Merrifield and Triangle, Va., supporting the Marine Corps Combat Development Command (MCCDC).