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fair play

Lisa Friel tackling a tough job for the NFL

Lisa Friel has traveled with Roger Goodell interviewing law enforcement and experts on domestic violence.
Lisa Friel has traveled with Roger Goodell interviewing law enforcement and experts on domestic violence.(seth wenig/associated press)

Lisa Friel has built a career on fact finding under difficult circumstances.

As a prosecutor with the Manhattan district attorney’s office for nearly three decades, she directed sexual assault investigations, rising to chief of the sex crimes unit. She joined T&M Protection Resources, a security and investigations firm, as a vice president in October 2011 and deals with allegations of sexual misconduct in schools and public and private workplaces.

When not working, Friel roots for the New York Giants. Her family has held season tickets for more than 60 years, leaving Friel with fond childhood memories of attending games. And these days, she cheers the team at MetLife Stadium with her kids.

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If the NFL dreamed up a woman to help league leaders address domestic violence issues, the powers that be couldn’t do better than Friel. Her gender, résumé, and lifelong football fandom check all the right boxes for the brand-obsessed league.

That Friel now serves as senior adviser to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is no surprise. Indeed, Friel and Goodell first talked about joining forces back in 2010 in the wake of sexual assault allegations against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Yet, her mid-September hiring is reason for both optimism and skepticism. The boxes are checked, but results, what the NFL will do in terms of policies and procedures, matter most.

What impact will Friel and her expertise have on how the NFL handles domestic violence and sexual assault cases? Can she make a real difference?

When asked exactly that, Friel said, “There’s a value to bringing to that most senior decision-making level of the organization the point of view of somebody with my background, but also the point of view of a woman. That senior level, that executive vice president level [in the NFL], until very recently was totally male. There’s a value to be brought by the other 50 percent of the population in this country to decisions. They now have, in addition to me, voices at the table that are going to give them somewhat of a different perspective than they have had in the past.”

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But understandably, Friel’s appointment to NFL senior adviser, along with the promotion of one female NFL vice president and addition of two other female senior advisers at the same time, was met with charges of a PR move. After all, Goodell acknowledged no women were involved in the league’s initial decision to suspend former Ravens running back Ray Rice two games for knocking out his then-fiancée. And that made it clear the league needed to quickly address the paucity of women in high-ranking NFL positions.

Friel, however, bristles at the suggestion of being part of a PR strategy. Conversations with Goodell before and after her hiring have made her a believer in the commissioner’s sincerity and commitment to do a better job with cases of domestic violence and sexual assault. And Goodell has been right beside Friel as the NFL looks beyond its still largely male halls of power for diverse expertise.

Since her hiring six weeks ago, Friel has traveled around the country with Goodell and other league personnel, interviewing law enforcement and academic experts on domestic violence. They have talked with police officers, professors, and university administrators in Chicago, and domestic abuse hotline call takers in Austin, Texas. They have discussed the issue with the players’ union and retired players. They will meet with players’ wives this week in New York.

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The goal: to comprehensively address domestic violence and sexual assault in a revised personal conduct policy and determine how to best educate players and other NFL employees about violence against women. For Friel, that means nearly 80-hour workweeks as she juggles T&M clients with NFL meetings. In those meetings, the crucial issues under discussion are the standards set by the policy, when to take a player off the field, how to conduct investigations, and what constitutes appropriate punishment.

Friel commented that pending player cases offer some hints as to where the NFL is headed in terms of how and when the league will act after an allegation.

“You can guess where the thinking is right now because there are players who are being investigated by the police in different jurisdictions and don’t have charges filed yet and they are playing,” said Friel. “There are other players with court cases going on who have taken leave with pay. We are looking at where is the exact right point, clearly post-arrest in the court system, to say, ‘You have to take a leave with pay.’ ”

According to Friel, another question that has loomed large over personal conduct policy discussions is, “How should allegations for violations of that policy be investigated going forward?” In the past, the NFL has relied almost exclusively on information provided by law enforcement and waited until the end of the criminal justice process to decide how it will act. That has been problematic because some jurisdictions can share more information than others and the criminal justice system can drag out cases for a year or more.

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So, the NFL and Friel are considering investigative models. How much should they rely on law enforcement? Should investigations be done by NFL employees or outsourced or some combination of the two? To be determined.

Post-investigation punishments are also under review. All Friel could confirm is that the league will adopt a “no tolerance policy” and not a “zero tolerance policy.” A zero tolerance policy would have meant that an act of domestic violence or sexual assault resulted in a lifetime ban from the league. That creates a host of problems, not the least of which is discouraging victims to come forward.

The NFL plans to put the revised policy in place by the Super Bowl in February.

So, it’s now a game of wait and see when it comes to the impact Friel and other women will make on NFL policies. And NFL fans and the larger public seem wary of wait and see, especially with the league’s history of incompetence and ignorance in matters involving violence against women.

As an NFL fan, Friel understands the public’s frustration with the months-long wait for policy changes. But she objects to any suggestion that all the recent meetings represent talk, not action. Friel sees an opportunity for the NFL to finally “get it right” after admitted mistakes with the Rice case and inconsistencies in the punishment of other players involved in domestic violence and sexual assault incidents.

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“There needs to be a recognition that this is a complicated process,” said Friel. “It takes time to get it right. It’s important to get it right. This is not all talk. The work that we’re doing is to make sure we get a process that is fair to the players with the personal conduct policy, as well as to the league . . . If there was a quick policy, [the public] should have looked at that as a Band-Aid.”

She’s right. Dealing with domestic violence and sexual assault is complicated. The potential to drive abuse further underground with a zero tolerance policy illustrates that.

But despite Friel’s sincerity and commitment, it remains to be seen if the NFL will implement truly effective policies and procedures. History shows that far too often the league is about image, not meaningful action.

Last week, true to its reactive, brand-protecting playbook, the NFL released a public service announcement with current and former players saying “no more” to the thinking that leads to violence against women. It’s the right message. But until Friel’s latest fact-finding mission finishes and new polices are in place, PR-oriented moves like that only fuel more skepticism about the NFL’s priorities.

Fair Play is a regular column that explores the challenges girls and women face in today’s sports world, as well as their athletic accomplishments. Shira Springer can be reached at springer@globe.com.