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Severe penalties for domestic violence

NEW YORK -- The NFL is immediately implementing a sweeping domestic violence initiative that calls for a six-game suspension for a first offense and a lifetime ban from the league for a second offense.

The measures, announced in a letter from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to all team owners, a copy of which was obtained by ESPN, apply to all NFL personnel.

A six-game suspension would be without pay and the length of the penalty could increase in these cases: an employee was involved in a prior incident before joining the NFL; violence involving a weapon; choking, repeated striking, or when the act is committed against a pregnant woman; or in the presence of a child. A second-time offender may petition for reinstatement after one year but there is no assurance the petition would be granted, the letter said.

The measures come partly in response to intense criticism Goodell received for his handling of discipline for Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who received a two-game suspension in July for assaulting his then-fiancee in February. Widely viewed as soft punishment, Goodell left many with the impression that the NFL did not understand domestic violence or take it seriously as a crime.

Goodell acknowledged as much in the letter.

"At times, however, and despite our best efforts, we fall short of our goals," Goodell wrote. "We clearly did so in response to a recent incident of domestic violence. ... My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values.

"I didn't get it right."

To be counted as an "offense," a player would not necessarily have to be convicted in a court of law, but each incident will be judged on its own merits.

"Our personal conduct policy has long made clear that domestic violence and sexual assault are unacceptable. We clearly must do a better job of addressing these incidents in the NFL. And we will," the commissioner wrote.

The Ravens had no immediate comment on the new policy after it was announced Thursday.

The league also announced a number of outreach measures. It will bulk up the domestic violence portion of the rookie symposium, identify at-risk personnel and offer preventative counseling, and also offer families a phone number as an emergency resource.

The NFL will also take that message on the road.

"We will expand the educational components in our college, high school and youth football programs that address domestic violence and sexual assault," Goodell wrote to owners.

The NFL instructs owners to distribute a memo to all personnel that details these new expectations and begins: "Domestic violence and sexual assault are wrong. They are illegal. They are never acceptable and have no place in the NFL under any circumstances."

In February, Rice was arrested on a charge of aggravated assault after knocking out his fiancee in an elevator in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Surveillance video showed Rice dragging Janay Palmer, who appeared unconscious, out of the elevator. Unreleased video showed Rice striking Palmer in the elevator.

In July, Goodell announced that Rice would be suspended for the first two games of the regular season. There was deep and sustained criticism from fans and groups who work with victims of domestic violence in response. The number of games was less than the suspensions given for most other infractions, such as substance abuse, steroid use or DUI offenses. The penalty for those items is determined by the collective bargaining agreement hammered out with the players' union in 2011.

Domestic violence infractions, however, fall under the personal conduct policy, which meant that Goodell alone was able to determine the severity of any fine or suspension. The fact that the Ravens held a press conference with Rice in May and had Janay sitting next to him on the dais also seemed to imply she shared responsibility -- whether or not that was the intention.

The fact that Goodell reportedly allowed Rice's wife into the hearing to plead for leniency in front of her husband's employers struck many as inappropriate.

"Having done this work for many years, often a victim will say she doesn't want the abuser punished," said Judy Kluger, a former New York City judge and current executive director of Sanctuary for Families, after the decision was announced. "That shouldn't deter what an independent organization decides to do."