(CNN)The Ray Rice incident changed everything about how the National Football League handles domestic and sexual assault.
It’s under that new policy that Antonio Brown, the New England Patriots wide receiver, is facing explosive accusations by his former trainer of sexual assault, including rape.
As someone who was right in the middle of the process as the executive vice president for Communications at the NFL from 2016-2018, I can tell you the new policy is working. I believe this because everyone is unhappy with it. Advocates for survivors of domestic violence think it’s too soft on players, while the players union and even some owners believe it is far too tough.
At the core of the new policy is a commitment to investigate and adjudicate abuse cases independently of local law enforcement.
Even if a prosecutor declines to bring criminal charges against a player, the NFL decided that its players needed to be held to a higher standard than that. Whether that was from genuine concern for survivors or for its brand (I suspect it was both), the league hired seasoned prosecutors and investigators to determine whether accused players should face discipline.
To be sure, this process had some trouble at the start. League investigators had no power to force witnesses or victims to cooperate with investigations. They also had no leverage with local law enforcement. In one case, that of former NY Giants kicker Josh Brown, local authorities released evidence only after the NFL concluded its investigation and discipline — and they released it to the media, not the league.
Despite intense criticism and self-admitted mistakes, the NFL forged on, trying to improve both on the investigative side and on the uniformity in discipline handed down. The league came to a crossroads in the case of Ezekiel Elliott, the all-pro Dallas Cowboys running back, who was accused of a violent attack against his girlfriend. Authorities in Columbus, Ohio, chose not to prosecute the former Ohio State University star.
The NFL’s investigation backed up many of the accuser’s claims and unearthed new information that the Columbus police had not found. And here’s where things got interesting.
One of the owners who thought that the league should not conduct investigations, but rather leave that to law enforcement, was the powerful boss of the Dallas Cowboys, Jerry Jones.
Jones insisted that his player should not be suspended. He publicly threatened the lead NFL investigator, and — after the league suspended Elliott for six games — reportedly tried to get Commissioner Roger Goodell fired. When the players union and Elliott went to federal court to try to block the suspension, there was plenty of incentive for the league to throw up its hands.
Meanwhile, domestic-violence groups scolded the NFL, arguing that a six-game suspension was not nearly enough. Some called for a zero-tolerance policy: one strike and you’re out.
At the end of the day, the NFL won in court, the Commissioner didn’t bow to Jones and Elliott missed a six-game stretch as the Cowboys tried to make the playoffs.
What does this have to do with Antonio Brown? Everything. His former trainer alleges that Brown raped her after otherwise sexually assaulting her on two other occasions. She has filed a civil case in Florida with potentially damaging text messages that they claim will implicate Brown.
Brown will now face the full force of the NFL discipline process. He strongly denied the charges, and will likely be able to play while the league investigates. A cloud will remain over both player and team for some time.
Many people are upset that Brown wasn’t immediately suspended. But the policy is about balancing the rights of accusers and the right of the player to due process. It’s about making sure women’s voices are heard even if law enforcement can’t or won’t bring a case. And it’s about allowing players to defend themselves in a formal process that protects their rights, too.
The system is far from perfect. But for me, the bottom-line question is whether the NFL has taken these issues seriously, and whether the new system is better than the old one. The answer to both questions is an unequivocal yes.