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An NFL Wife Tells Her Story: Intimidated Spouses Followed “Code of Silence” Around Domestic Abuse

StorySeptember 16, 2014
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Calls are increasing for National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell to resign over how the league has addressed domestic violence. So far this year, at least four players have been arrested for beating a spouse or partner, most notably Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. We are joined by Dewan Smith-Williams, the wife of former NFL player Wally Williams. When she asked the league for help, she was ignored and told to keep quiet. “It was just a code of silence — you didn’t tell, you didn’t talk about it,” Smith-Williams says. “When you would talk about it, you always started to weigh just what’s happening to Janay Rice right now … It happened to many women — both physically and verbally — and it’s just what happens.”

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StorySep 09, 2014It’s Not Just Ray Rice: Dave Zirin on the NFL’s History of Condoning Domestic Abuse
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Calls are increasing for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to resign over how the league has addressed domestic violence. So far this year, at least four players have been arrested for domestic violence, most notably all-star running back Ray Rice. Rice was indefinitely suspended last week by the league after video emerged of him punching his fiancée, now wife, in the face, knocking her unconscious inside an Atlantic City casino elevator. Rice had previously been suspended for two games by the NFL after an earlier video of the same incident showed him dragging the unconscious woman from the elevator. In a letter sent on Monday to the league’s 32 owners, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted he, quote, “didn’t get it right” when he initially suspended Rice for just two games.

But the arrest of Rice is not an isolated incident. On September 4th, New York Jets wide receiver Quincy Enunwa was arrested for assaulting a woman at a hotel in New Jersey. Less than a week earlier, on August 30th, San Francisco 49er Ray McDonald was taken into custody after police officers responded to a 911 call and found McDonald’s pregnant fiancée with bruises on her arms and neck. In May, Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy was arrested for assaulting an ex-girlfriend. He was subsequently found guilty for assaulting and threatening her. He’s appealing the ruling.

As the NFL faces incoming criticism, the league announced on Monday it had hired four women to help shape its domestic violence policies, [including] Lisa Friel, the former head of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit in the New York County District Attorney’s Office; Rita Smith, the former executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Well, to talk more about the domestic abuse faced by wives and partners of NFL players, we go to Cleveland, Ohio, where we’re joined by Dewan Smith-Williams. She’s married to retired NFL player Wally Williams, who played in the NFL from ’93 to 2003 on three teams—the Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens and the New Orleans Saints. Dewan Smith-Williams is a survivor of domestic abuse herself. She says the league pressured her to keep quiet about the abuse. Dewan Smith-Williams is also an advanced practice psychiatric mental health nurse.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! And why don’t you start, Dewan Smith-Williams, by talking about your own experience, the abuse that you suffered and what happened when you turned to the NFL for help?

DEWAN SMITH-WILLIAMS: Well, first I’d like to say that—thank you so much for having me. And I want to say that this isn’t about my situation. I’m not a victim. I am here to make a change and hopefully promote change within the NFL.

In my particular situation, Wally and I became—the situation, our marriage, became very tumultuous. He basically wanted to do what he wanted to do, and when I would oppose it, there would be problems. And I was a participant in the arguing and the fighting. And in my situation, I think of—my husband had been in the diversion program for drug and alcohol and for use of marijuana. And he was just doing what he wanted to do.

At one particular time when I contacted the league, he had become angry and upset, and he went and got a bat in our home. And I locked him in the garage with the bat, and he began beating on the door with the bat. He got into the house, hit chairs, hit the walls. He was running through the house like a crazed man with the baseball bat. I ran upstairs into my bedroom, I locked the door, and I called the player liaison with the NFLPA that was actually working with Wally in his diversion program. And I contacted him, and I told them that I was really afraid, that they needed to send someone to the house, that I was fearful, that Wally was being crazy right now. He had a baseball bat. He was running through the house hitting things. And they told me to make sure that I stayed safe, you know, to try to get out of the house, or, if he was leaving, to let him leave, and that they would get back in contact with me. And I never heard anything back from the league. They never called me. They never called to check on me. It was just basically it happened, and that was the end of the story.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re calling them from a closet. Your husband is running around with a baseball bat, and you’re calling the NFL for help, the sort of point person dealing with you and your husband, and he said, “I’ll get back to you”—


AMY GOODMAN: —and he never did?

DEWAN SMITH-WILLIAMS: That’s correct. That’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened—

DEWAN SMITH-WILLIAMS: And, you know, during that—go ahead. I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened when you told—when you went to the NFL, and you said, “What can you do?” What happened when you talked to other women, the wives of NFL players? Did you share your story with them?

DEWAN SMITH-WILLIAMS: Well, you know, unfortunately, it was a common conversation that I had with many of my friends whose husbands who also played football. And it was all—it was just a code of silence. You didn’t tell. You didn’t talk about it. When you would talk about it, you always started to weigh exactly what’s happening to Janay Rice right now. If it gets in the media, what’s going to happen? Is he going to lose his job? How am I going to be perceived, you know, in the situation? Like I’m tearing him down. You know, when you’re a victim and when you feel that things that are going wrong in your marriage or in your household are your fault or you’re causing it, because you’re made to believe that, because you’re dealing with a person who is a superstar in their own mind, they’re a superstar on the football field, and everyone gives them what they want. And so, you know, when we would conversate about it, problems would come up between the wives, because—we called it pillow talk: If the women would go back to their husbands and share anything that I would say or someone else would say, the husbands would go to the locker room and share it, and then that would escalate the argument and the fight, because then, you know, your husband comes back home and says, “Stop talking to our business. You told such-and-such about this. It’s no one’s business. Keep our business in our house.” And so, it was very difficult, because it happened to many women, both physical and verbally, and it was just—it’s just what happens.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the difference between the attitude toward drug use and domestic violence, that there’s a zero-tolerance policy around drug use, but when it comes to beating up your wife or attempted murder, whatever the issues are—and it’s coming out more and more all over the country; it seems the dam has broken—the question is, “What will be done about it?”—that kind of comparison?

DEWAN SMITH-WILLIAMS: Well, unfortunately, drugs and alcohol and football, from—I can just speak from my experience—that was just a part of our life. That was just a part of the lifestyle. I can’t point the finger and say that I never participated, because in trying to please my husband and be a part of the crowd, there were times where I did engage, with him, by myself, just to cope in dealing with the situation that I was in. I feel that—

AMY GOODMAN: Dewan, what was your—what was your breaking point?

DEWAN SMITH-WILLIAMS: My breaking point, where I knew that the relationship was no longer going to exist, there were several. I have a son who at the time was a baby. My youngest son was a baby. And we had another one of his teammates’ wife and her children were at our home, and my sister was there. And Wally and I were arguing, and I made a very foul comment, vulgar comment, to him about his mother. And he ran toward me, and he grabbed me by the throat. I had my son in my arms, and he lifted me up off the ground, and he was choking me. And my friend and my sister were pulling on his arms, you know, telling him to let go. And I was saying, you know, “Take the baby, take the baby,” because I was just very fearful that I was going to drop my child. And after he let go—violence with violence is not the answer. I picked up the Swiffer mop, and I began hitting him with it. And it was just—it was a bad situation. And my sister came to me and said, “What are you doing? You know, this man can kill you. This is not the proper way to respond. This is—you guys need to stop.” And so, at that point, I realized, you know, all of our arguments, it was never any sitting down, talking, you know, just having peaceful discussion. It was just always arguing and bringing up past situations. And there were many. It was just a very toxic situation. Very toxic.

AMY GOODMAN: When you went to the NFL, did they tell you to be quiet?

DEWAN SMITH-WILLIAMS: It wasn’t that I was told to be quiet. Nothing was done. When you say going to the NFL, there were several—there’s several arenas that come into play. You’re talking about coaches. You’re talking about coaches’ wives. You’re talking about other players, and even calling the NFLPA. I mean, it’s very difficult in even having conversation with especially the NFLPA, or even the teams, because if the team does not have permission from the player to discuss anything with you, then they won’t talk to you. They won’t give you any information. You know, they listen. They’re great listeners, excellent listeners. But as far as action, it never happens. It’s like, OK, it happened, and OK. You know, so I got a lot of head nods and a lot of “I’m sorry to hear that you’re going through that. You know, we have counseling. We have the EAP, the Employee Assistance Program.” And, you know, even with that and going and—

AMY GOODMAN: Were you told—were you told not to go to the media or to go to a lawyer?

DEWAN SMITH-WILLIAMS: Well, that was a different situation, yes. Our home, when we lived in New Orleans, was raided by the police, and we were on vacation. And when I came home, one of the coaches had left a letter in our kitchen on the refrigerator stating that we needed to call him. We had gone to the Atlantis for the weekend and taken our children, and our flight back was delayed. And that day, the police were there with the K-9 dogs in our house and had gone through our house, and they found drug paraphernalia. There were weapons. And so, when we came home, my husband called—Wally called his coach, and he came over and told us that, you know, this was really serious and that we should not talk to the media, we should not talk to any attorneys, we should not talk to anybody about the situation that has occurred, that they would be the point person for everything, that they would handle everything. They’d get us attorneys.


DEWAN SMITH-WILLIAMS: And that, you know, just—

AMY GOODMAN: Because we have very little time, I wanted to play a comment from your husband, Wally Williams, former NFL player.


AMY GOODMAN: He was at one point Baltimore Ravens left guard, now a sports analyst for CBS Baltimore. He said he doesn’t buy the NFL’s story that it hadn’t seen the Ray Rice elevator video until TMZ released it.

WALLY WILLIAMS: The protocol that was in place, put forth by the NFL, put forth by our judicial system as we know it, as far as we all know, he followed that to the T and was advised by his lawyers and everybody. So, to come back now and say that this needs to have more precedent, this needs to have more punishment, I think it is a total cover-up by the NFL, and they’re just trying to save themselves on this one, because I think they all had the opportunity to see this video.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s former NFL player Wally Williams, the husband of Dewan Williams, who we’re joined by in Cleveland. As we wrap up, at this point, do you feel that the NFL is going to change? Among the things they’ve done is hired four women they say who will be consultants on issues of domestic violence.

DEWAN SMITH-WILLIAMS: My hope would be that these four women, moving forward, would be able to speak with someone, like myself, that would be able to tell them what the issues really are. The NFL took several months to even acknowledge that there was a problem, even after they had been told by Ray Rice that he punched his wife. It took them several months to acknowledge that domestic violence occurred. So if you’re hiring someone and you don’t know what the issues are, I just hope that they talk to someone that knows the issues and that’s willing to come forward and speak about them. The NFL needs to put in place things for the players, as far as with the draft. The same things that they do with the drills, with the physical aspect of the team, they need to do that psychologically, maybe doing some comprehensive psychological testing that would screen and let them know what players are at risk for high-risk behaviors with this domestic violence, with drug abuse, and put into place some teachings, some trainings, DBT, IOP, PHP, so that we not only just throw them out, but the players don’t need to be abandoned right now. They need to be offered tools to manage their anger, their aggression, their addictions.

AMY GOODMAN: Dewan Smith-Williams, I want to thank you very much for being with us.

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It’s Not Just Ray Rice: Dave Zirin on the NFL’s History of Condoning Domestic Abuse

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