Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with recent developments concerning the civil lawsuit filed against Matt Araiza and two of his former college teammates.
Over a decade ago, Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexually assaulting a college student in Georgia – a case that sent shudders through the NFL world.
Roethlisberger, the starting quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers at the time, was beloved by fans – having led the Steelers to two Super Bowl championships.
Though Roethlisberger was never charged with any crimes, he was given a six-game suspension by the league for violating its personal conduct policy. (Roethlisberger’s lawyer denied the sexual assault allegation, and the quarterback apologized in a statement to the team and fans for letting them down). Later, the suspension was reduced to four games for good behavior.
“You have told me and the Steelers that you are committed to making better decisions,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a letter to Roethlisberger at the time. “Your actions over the past several months have been consistent with that promise and you must continue to honor that commitment.”
Roethlisberger’s was the first case of alleged violence against women that sports reporter Melissa Jacobs, now managing editor of The Football Girl and a contributor to The Guardian, remembers hearing about as a reporter covering the league. The NFL, she said, seemed completely incompetent at the time. When the league reduced Roethlisberger’s suspension, she was stunned.
“The NFL had no blueprint in place for how to handle this,” Jacobs told CNN.
Once again, the league is under scrutiny for its handling of sexual misconduct accusations. This time, that scrutiny is centered on Deshaun Watson.
Watson, quarterback for the Cleveland Browns, has faced allegations from more than two dozen women who say the football star sexually harassed or assaulted them during private massage appointments during his time with the Houston Texans. Twenty-four women filed civil lawsuits against Watson. Twenty-three of those civil suits have been settled confidentially; two grand juries in Texas declined to charge Watson criminally.
Initially, Watson, who has consistently denied any wrongdoing, was hit with a six-game suspension, just like Roethlisberger. But unlike in the past, Goodell and the NFL pushed for more – appealing the decision and seeking a full-season suspension.
Last week, the NFL and the NFL Players Association reached a settlement: Watson received an 11-game suspension and was fined $5 million. It’s the NFL’s harshest punishment for someone accused of sexual assault – in the past, the NFL has issued longer suspensions for violations including alleged drug use and gambling.
The situation is still thorny. There are, for example, questions surrounding what the Texans knew about Watson’s massage sessions.
And under his latest contract with the Browns, Watson’s current team, he will not lose much of his guaranteed money, according to ESPN. If the six-game suspension had held, he would have only lost $345,000. (Watson’s contract is one of the richest deals in NFL history, at five years with $230 million guaranteed).
But just days after the league announced Watson’s updated suspension and fine, a new civil lawsuit against a newly drafted and since-released NFL player came to light.
Thus, questions from critics still linger: Is Watson’s penalty enough?
A history of alleged violence against women
Domestic violence cases and accusations of sexual misconduct in football aren’t limited to the professional level – colleges and universities have a history of such accusations as well.
In 1974, an 18-year-old girl accused six football players at the University of Notre Dame of gang-raping her. Those players were suspended for a year, but she alleged that up to 20 players were aware of the incident, with some even watching as it happened. Charges were filed, then dropped according to published reports; the university suspended the six students accused of being involved for a year.
Fifteen years later, at the University of Oklahoma, two players were convicted of raping a 20-year-old woman in a dorm room. The incident was one of many controversies that prompted the resignation of coach Barry Switzer (who, five years later, took a head coaching job with the Dallas Cowboys).
Nigel Clay, one of the Oklahoma players convicted, spoke about the incident in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1992. He, and many other players on campus, felt almost bulletproof, he said according to the Times report.
“We felt like we were above the law,” Clay said. “Like OU would protect us from anything.”
That sentiment, to some degree, remains a concern. Between 2010 and 2015, officials at Baylor University failed to report sexual assault claims against football players, creating what the NCAA called in a 2021 report a “campus-wide culture of sexual violence.” Still, the NCAA did not penalize the university for its handling of sexual assault claims, stating in its report that Baylor did not actually violate NCAA legislation. (In a responding statement, the university said it “sincerely regret(s) the actions of a few individuals that caused harm to so many.”)
And on Thursday, a civil lawsuit was filed against Matt Araiza, a punter recently drafted by the Buffalo Bills, and two of his former college teammates for allegedly gang-raping a 17-year-old girl in 2021 while attending San Diego State University.
“I’m disappointed that she filed this civil lawsuit against my client because he didn’t rape her, he never used any force against her, she was not visibly intoxicated, he did not hand her a drink with anything in it,” Kerry Armstrong, Araiza’s lawyer, told CNN on a call.
The university is investigating the matter, SDSU officials said in a statement, as is the San Diego Police Department. Both the Bills and the NFL initially stated they were aware of the lawsuit but declined to comment due to the ongoing investigation. No criminal charges have been filed.
On Saturday, the Bills released Araiza from the team.
“This afternoon, we decided that releasing Matt Araiza was the best thing to do. Our culture in Buffalo is more important than winning football games,” team general manager Brandon Beane announced.
Deborah Epstein is the co-director of the Georgetown University Law Center’s Domestic Violence Clinic, and she previously served on the NFL Players Association’s commission on domestic violence. She resigned from the commission in 2018, claiming the NFLPA wasn’t actually committed to preventing violence against women. (The NFLPA, in response, said it had implemented “many of the commission’s recommendations” and “will continue to provide resources and services” to members.)
Many athletes are identified as stars relatively young, Epstein explained, even before they go to college. People treat them like gods who don’t have to follow the rules, she said. And that can be detrimental.
“For someone that young, it’s incredibly hard to avoid internalizing those messages and developing into a person that acts impulsively (and) doesn’t really have to think through the consequences of his actions,” Epstein said. “And that pattern, that kind of life, is one that can easily lead to violence against women, feeling like everything’s your property.”
Cases of athletes accused of committing violence against women aren’t limited to football – they are found across sports in boxing, basketball, and soccer, among others. In April, Major League Baseball suspended Trevor Bauer of the Los Angeles Dodgers for two years following allegations of sexual assault, which he has denied. (Bauer will not face criminal charges, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office said.)
And in 2015 while with the Cincinnati Reds, Aroldis Chapman was suspended for 30 games out of the 162-game season, after his girlfriend accused him of choking and pushing her, before firing his gun multiple times in the garage. His girlfriend called 911 from the bushes near his home, according to a police report.
Chapman wasn’t charged for the incident and claimed he never hurt his girlfriend – though he apologized for his use of a gun.
Two years later, when Chapman signed with the New York Yankees, owner Hal Steinbrenner defended the move in spite of the allegations.
“Look, he admitted he messed up. He paid the penalty. Sooner or later, we forget, right?” Steinbrenner said at the time. “That’s the way we’re supposed to be in life.”
Even when the NFL penalizes alleged misconduct, experts say it can do more to prevent it
The NFL does now have policies in place to punish those accused of sexual misconduct or violence against women, following an investigation. But the data shows those policies haven’t always been strictly followed.
Jacquelyn Wiersma-Mosley, a professor at the University of Arkansas, completed an empirical investigation into violence against women in the NFL, pulling data from a public list of the 176 known players who violated any league policy between 2010 and 2019.
Only 10% of victims actually report incidents of domestic violence, Wiersma-Mosley said, so the data may not reflect the actual scope of the issue. Still, offenses pertaining to allegations of violence against women received an average of a four-game suspension – even though NFL policy states the minimum as six.
And the majority of infractions were for general violent behaviors, things like assault and battery or allegations of such, which Wiersma-Mosley found received an average suspension time of just two games – suggesting that the league doesn’t only have an issue with violence against women, but violence in general.