Nearly four years ago, after the NFL’s mishandling of Ray Rice’s domestic abuse suspension became front-page news, Commissioner Roger Goodell vowed that the league would “get our house in order” when it came to future incidents of domestic violence and sexual assault.
But once again, we’ve been reminded that not much has changed at all; when it comes to violence against women, the league’s proverbial house is still in disrepair.
Last week, the Detroit News reported that Matt Patricia, the new head coach of the Detroit Lions, was indicted on sexual assault charges in 1996.
The charges were dropped after the victim declined to testify due to the “stress of trial.” In the eyes of the law, Patricia is innocent. And it’s important to emphasize that Patricia shouldn’t necessarily lose his job or be branded a pariah by the league just because this allegation surfaced.
Nevertheless, there are a few things about this revelation — and the subsequent handling of it by the Lions — that are downright disturbing.
For instance, why didn’t any of the NFL teams that employed Patricia for the last 20 years find out about this indictment on their own? Why did the Lions feel comfortable firmly asserting Patricia’s innocence so soon after they were notified of the incident? And why did they get basic facts of the case incorrect when doing so?
Here’s what we know: In 1996, Patricia and a college friend, Greg Dietrich, met a 21-year-old female student at the beach while on spring break in South Padre Island, Texas. At the time, Patricia and Dietrich were football players and fraternity brothers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in upstate New York.
The woman told police that, on the evening of March 15, 1996, Patricia and Dietrich burst into her hotel room while she was sleeping and, according to court records and news reports from the time, took turns violently sexually assaulting her. She went to the hospital for an exam after the incident, and the police were provided with medical evidence. The following January, a grand jury indicted Patricia and Dietrich on one charge of aggravated assault, but the trial never happened because the alleged victim stopped cooperating, saying she couldn’t take the stress.
However, we also know that the prosecution’s witness list included a nurse, a doctor, a police detective, a police officer, and a college friend of the alleged victim, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Most of this information was easily discovered by reporters in public databases, which certainly calls into question why the New England Patriots — Patricia’s former employer — and the Lions were both reportedly blindsided by the news last week. Given how NFL front offices have been known to inquire about the sexual orientation, parental occupations, and national anthem stance of players when entering into contract talks, an indictment for aggravated sexual assault seems like something they should have stumbled across.
Unless, of course, they weren’t looking for it, and the Lions clearly weren’t before they decided to hand Patricia the keys to their clubhouse. Of course, even if they had found this information, it’s unlikely anything would have changed, based on how they reacted to the report by the Detroit News.
When approached by The Detroit News, team president Rod Wood initially said “I don’t know anything about this” — but hours later said his review of the situation only reinforced the team’s decision to hire Patricia.
“I am very comfortable with the process of interviewing and employing Matt,” Wood said. “I will tell you with 1,000-percent certainty that everything I’ve learned confirmed what I already knew about the man and would have no way changed our decision to make him our head coach.”
Wood also said the woman recanted the sexual assault allegations multiple times — a claim not substantiated by existing records or lawyers for Patricia and his fraternity brother.
That’s right — just hours after first hearing about these sexual assault allegations, the Lions felt comfortable saying with “1,000-percent certainty” that they made the right decision hiring Patricia, and claiming the woman recanted the allegation, despite no corroboration of that fact.
Soon after the Detroit News story published, the Lions released a statement saying that, among other things, “Matt was 21 at the time and on spring break in Texas,” and that they “believe and have accepted Coach Patricia’s explanation and we will continue to support him.” The Lions say they came to this conclusion after speaking to Patricia and the attorney who represented him “at great length” — even though they were allegedly unaware of the allegations until the report surfaced.
Let’s get a few things straight: Being a 21-year-old male on spring break is not an excuse to rape someone; the fact that the alleged sexual assault occurred 22 years ago is not an excuse to dismiss it as unimportant; and the fact that the victim did not want to cooperate with a trial for very legitimate reasons does not mean she was lying or that she “recanted the sexual assault allegations multiple times.” Plus, Patricia set the Lions up for failure by not disclosing such an easily-discoverable case during the job search.
In cases like these, people are usually afraid to jump to conclusions. However, that is a two-way street. A woman reported Patricia for sexual assault the night it occurred; she went to the hospital afterwards, which is not a pleasant or easy experience; a grand jury determined there was sufficient evidence to indict Patricia. What few facts of this case we do know suggests that it deserves more than a knee-jerk denial. In other words, there’s a middle ground between instinctively kicking Patricia out the door and quadrupling down on your unwavering support of him before properly investigating the matter.
Patricia, for his part, has steadfastly proclaimed his innocence, without providing any specific details to back up his claim.
“Again, I did nothing wrong, and that’s all I’m going to say on that matter,” he told reporters. If the NFL really wants to prove it takes violence against women seriously, that shouldn’t be good enough.