Whisked Out of Jail, and Back to the N.F.L.

Steve Eder, Whisked Out of Jail, and Back to the N.F.L. Nowhere to Turn: First of Two Articles. The New York Times, 16 November 2014. And N.F.L. Was Family, Until Wives Reported Domestic Abuse. Nowhere to Turn: Second of Two Articles, The New York Times, 17 November 2014. “Even after sheriff’s deputies arrived at her Weston, Fla., home, Kristen Lennon remained in the bathroom, afraid to leave. Minutes earlier, she had fled there for safety as she called 911, telling the operator that her fiancé [Phillip Merling, a 6-foot-5, 305-pound defensive end for the Miami Dolphins] had thrown her on the bed and hit her in the face and head. She was two months pregnant…. Mr. Merling was booked on charges of aggravated domestic battery on a pregnant woman. Almost all inmates are required to leave the jail through the public front door and arrange their own transportation home, but Mr. Merling was granted an unusual privilege: He was escorted out a rear exit by a deputy, evading reporters. The commander, who was off duty and in uniform, drove Mr. Merling in an unmarked car to the Dolphins’ training complex 20 minutes away. After Mr. Merling met with team officials, the commander drove him home to get his belongings — even though a judge had ordered Mr. Merling to “stay away” and avoid any potential contact with Ms. Lennon.”

N.F.L. teams, which have their own robust security operations, often form close relationships with local law enforcement agencies, say people familiar with the procedures. Teams routinely employ off-duty officers to be uniformed escorts or to help with security, paying them, providing perks and covering costs for them to travel to away games. When allegations of crimes such as domestic violence arise, the bond between officers and team security officials can favor the player while leaving the accuser feeling isolated….

The treatment of players involved in domestic violence cases has become an inflammatory issue for the N.F.L. after a video emerged showing Ray Rice, at the time a Baltimore Ravens running back, knocking his fiancée unconscious. Amid heavy criticism, Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged that his initial two-game suspension of Mr. Rice was insufficient and that the league had fallen short in its handling of domestic abuse. In light of the Rice case, the N.F.L. has promised to overhaul its personal conduct policy.

Long before the Rice controversy, however, the Merling case served as an example of how N.F.L. players can receive lenient treatment not only from local law enforcement agencies but also from a league that has taken an inconsistent approach to domestic violence — despite a pledge in 2007 to strictly enforce its personal conduct policy. Through interviews with Ms. Lennon and a review of documents obtained through public record requests, The New York Times found a pattern of continuing harassment by Mr. Merling — while he continued to play in the N.F.L….

Mercedes Sands and her husband, Robert, a safety for the Cincinnati Bengals, started fighting early, just a few months after they were married. But when Ms. Sands drove her car into a neighbor’s house while trying to flee, knocking herself unconscious and prompting a visit from the police, the Bengals became alarmed.

Within days of the episode, in January 2012, the team’s head coach, Marvin Lewis, called a meeting at Paul Brown Stadium to try to help the couple work through their problems.

He offered encouragement, Ms. Sands said in an interview, telling them that young couples often fought and that they should seek counseling. He also advised them to reach out to the Bengals first if there were further problems because a call to the police could attract attention from the news media and cause an embarrassing distraction….

As outrage has mounted this fall [2014] over the National Football League’s handling of domestic abuse cases, the primary focus has been on questions of policy and punishment. Little has been heard from the victims, in part because they often recant their accusations and stay with their partners.

But in interviews with The New York Times, two women who left their husbands — Ms. Sands and Brandie Underwood, who was married to a Green Bay Packers player — described abusive relationships in which they felt trapped, in part because of each team’s close-knit culture and a protocol that emphasized avoiding disruptions.

It was better to endure indignities like infidelity, other wives told them, and to keep quiet even if the hostility in their marriages seemed unbearable than to cause a ruckus that could upend the success and harmony of the team….

[Mercedes Sands] had received a warm welcome when she arrived in Cincinnati. Teammates hosted the couple for Thanksgiving. In December 2012, when Ms. Sands was seven months pregnant, the Bengals threw a baby shower for her and two other wives. They shared a cake decorated with their husbands’ uniform numbers.

But the acrimony and physical confrontations between Ms. Sands and her husband had been escalating. Less than a week after the baby shower, Ms. Sands found that she had become the outcast in the Bengals’ family.

On Jan. 4, 2013, she called the police to report that her husband had assaulted her, choking her with his hand while putting his weight on her stomach. Mr. Sands was arrested, one day before a first-round playoff game.

Ms. Sands expected support and concern, but she was met with silence, she said. “No one was there,” said Ms. Sands, now 25. “The wives weren’t there. No one answered my phone calls.”