The question invariably comes up inside the Palm Beach office of clinical psychologist Dr. John F. Murray.
"How do you turn it off?" Murray said, repeating the question he hears from many of the NFL players he has seen in 15 years of practicing sports psychology. "How do you turn that instinct off? With football players, there are two completely different contexts of violence. One is rewarded on the field, and the other is abhorred off the field."
That question is now at the heart of a raging debate that has been reignited this week in the NFL, with the confluence of the Ray Rice domestic-violence incident, mushrooming concern over Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald, who are playing for their respective teams Sunday after being arrested on domestic violence charges, and the indictment of Vikings star running back Adrian Peterson for injuring a child.
The NFL is now at a crisis point regarding the issue of domestic violence, even after commissioner Roger Goodell announced last month a new policy that strengthens the league's ability to punish players involved in domestic violence cases. Goodell himself offered a stunning mea culpa in the wake of condemnation of his initial two-game suspension of Rice, saying he "got it wrong" when he unveiled the increased sanctions for domestic violence six games for first-time offenders, with the possibility of a harsher penalty based on extenuating circumstances, and a minimum one-year banishment for a second offense.
Terry O'Neill, director of the National Organization for Women, has called for Goodell's ouster. "The NFL has lost its way, O'Neill said on Wednesday. "It doesn't have a Ray Rice problem; it has a violence against women problem."
The four players fueling the firestorm:
Ray Rice, Ravens
A graphic video released on Monday showing Rice knocking out his then fiancee, Janay Palmer, inside the elevator of an Atlantic City casino, set off a firestorm of criticism that quickly led to Rice's release from the Ravens and an indefinite suspension by the NFL.
Rice attended a football game Saturday at his alma mater, New Rochelle High School, with his wife, Janay Rice, and their daughter only days after the high school removed Rice's jersey from its wall of fame and took down a placard honoring him.
The Superintendent of Schools for New Rochelle, Brian Osborne, said in a statement emailed on Thursday that "our community stands united in the belief that physical violence to settle differences cannot be condoned."
Adrian Peterson, Vikings
On Friday, Peterson, a periennal all-Pro running back, was indicted for injury to a child in Montgomery County, Texas and charged with inflicting cuts and bruises on his 4-year-old son when he used a small tree branch to discipline him in May.
It's not only Rice and Peterson fueling the public outcry. With Rice's NFL career now in doubt and Peterson ruled inactive for Saturday's game against the Patriots, two other players involved in domestic violence cases will be on the field for their respective teams this weekend.
Greg Hardy, Panthers
The Carolina defensive end, who was convicted by a judge of assaulting his girlfriend during an altercation in Hardy's Charlotte apartment in May, will play against the Lions in the Panthers' home opener.
Ray McDonald, 49ers
The San Francisco defensive end was arrested on a felony domestic violence charge for allegedly beating his pregnant girlfriend on Aug. 31. He will play today against the Chicago Bears in San Francisco.
"Football is a violent sport, and you're rewarded constantly for violence," Murray said. "Unless you have the proper grounding, there can be a greater propensity for violence to come out [off the field] in times of stress. In times of high stress or anxiety, you tend to see more emotional behavior and less thinking."
The domestic violence cases are the latest in a troubling pattern for the NFL, with these and several other incidents occurring in recent years. The worst of those cases occurred on Dec. 1, 2012, when Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, who played high school football in West Babylon, shot and killed his girlfriend and later killed himself at the Chiefs' practice facility. The grisly sequence of events highlighted the problem of domestic violence in the NFL level, yet the problem persists, raising alarm among advocates of domestic violence victims that the league isn't doing enough to address the issue.
Goodell has come under a torrent of criticism for not acting more forcefully. He initially suspended Rice for only two games, with leading advocates for domestic violence victims voicing strong opposition to what they perceived as a slap-on-the-wrist punishment. Rice would have been eligible to return to the Ravens this past Friday had Goodell not suspended him indefinitely after the video surfaced on Monday.
Goodell, generally one of the most accessible commissioners in pro sports, has declined myriad interview requests this week. In one of his only media appearances, he acknowledged the league needs to do much better in dealing with the issue of domestic violence.
"Absolutely, we're saying we have a problem . . . We haven't done this right," Goodell told CBS on Tuesday. "We've had lots of conversations . . . with experts, not just in the last two weeks or three weeks, or months, but over the last couple of years, saying, 'How could we prevent the cases from happening and when they do happen, how can we send the right message to say this is unacceptable?'''
But the message has mostly failed to assuage critics of the NFL's handling of domestic violence, even after Goodell took the unusual step of bringing in former FBI director Robert Mueller to investigate the league's handling of evidence in the Rice case:
Twelve House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Democrats sent a letter to Goodell on Wednesday demanding "the highest level of transparency" regarding how the league investigated the Rice incident.
On Thursday, a group of 16 female Senators sent a letter to Goodell that expressed deep concerns about the league's recently revised policy on domestic violence that increased a first offense to a six-game suspension. The group called for a zero tolerance policy.
"We are deeply concerned that the NFL's new policy, announced last month, would allow a player to commit a violent act and return after a short suspension," the letter, released by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), read. "If you violently assault a woman, you shouldn't get a second chance to play in the NFL."
A banner reading "Goodell Must Go" representing Ultraviolet, a women's advocacy group, is to be flown over four NFL stadiums this weekend, including MetLife Stadium, where the Giants host the Cardinals on Sunday.
Despite the outcry, Goodell has received support from several NFL owners, including John Mara of the Giants; Woody Johnson of the Jets; Robert Kraft of the Patriots; the McCaskey family, which owns the Bears, and Washington owner Daniel Snyder. But there is also a sense of unease among NFL teams over how the domestic violence issue is being handled, with the uproar over Rice and Peterson bringing public criticism to a boiling point.
But domestic violence victims' advocate Judy Harris Kluger, executive director of Sanctuary for Families, New York's leading service provider and advocate for survivors of domestic violence and related forms of gender violence, believes the issue is about much more than Goodell.
"[Goodell] is the noise around an issue that's far more important than that," Kluger said. "Instead of focusing on Roger Goodell, we should focus on the issue and that there are many other players in this sport and other sports that have committed acts of domestic violence, and why more wasn't done to address that."
Kluger said Goodell's recently strengthened policies about domestic violence were a step in the right direction, but still don't go far enough.
"We have a zero-tolerance policy at Sanctuary, and I think that should be the policy throughout," she said. "I thought the NFL was recognizing that they had done something wrong in making a change . To that extent, I would give them credit. But when we look at some of the other players around the league, with Greg Hardy being convicted of domestic violence and he's playing this weekend, that's not a good thing."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said any punishment for Hardy won't occur until his legal situation is resolved. After being convicted in July of assaulting his girlfriend, Hardy appealed the decision and is now awaiting a jury trial that won't begin until November.
Kluger said that's no excuse to keep him on the field. Or McDonald, for that matter. Authorities in San Jose continue to investigate his alleged assault, and the 49ers have allowed him to continue playing.
"There have been instances where coaches have benched players or suspended them ," Kluger said. "There is no reason that it has to mirror what happens in the criminal justice system, particularly in a case like Hardy, where there has been an adjudication. I just think there has to be a recognition that domestic violence is a crime and should be treated as such."
NFL is not alone
While there have been no definitive studies on the rate of domestic violence in the NFL compared with society at large, Kluger and other domestic violence advocates indicate that the problem occurs in virtually every segment of society.
According to the National Coalition of Domestic Violence, approximately one in every four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. An estimated 1.3 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner every year, while 85 percent of domestic violence victims are women.
"It crosses every socio-economic, ethnic, religious line that we have in our culture," Kluger said. "We estimate that there are 1,300 domestic violence homicides and two million incidents of domestic violence each year. There is a huge cost in terms of medical care and lost wages, to say nothing of the trauma to the children and women involved."
Former NFL quarterback Jeff Kemp, who has spent most of his post-career life as a relationships expert and has helped many current and former NFL players deal with domestic issues, said many men in society fail to mature properly and therefore are prone to domestic violence.
"If we put as much effort into our marriage as we do learning to play press man coverage and learning to read the weak-side blitz and handle the Tampa 2 defense, there would be far fewer divorces, more marriages and way less domestic violence," said Kemp, vice president for Family Life.
Kemp is the son of late Bills quarterback Jack Kemp, a former congressman and vice presidential candidate who also served as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
"As much as we advertise against abuse, it is still rampant and has probably grown, and that has to do with the crisis of identity and manhood," Kemp said. They don't know the identity of man and using his strength to protect others, protecting those who are weaker, whether it's a woman or a child or a handicapped person or someone being bullied -- to make life safe, as opposed to unsafe."
Murray, who has written books on the psychology of football and tennis, agrees with Kemp and other experts that domestic violence spans all levels of society. But he also believes it's important that the NFL now assumes a leading role in drawing attention to the problem. Especially with the intense scrutiny brought on by the latest examples.
"The NFL has enormous power to influence society," he said. "A lot of this stuff goes on all the time, and it's hidden. But the NFL has an extraordinary power base, and they can help everyone by drawing attention to the problem."
Kluger believes we could be at a tipping point because of the past week's events.
"I think things will change," she said. "I think people who never thought about this issue because of the widespread publicity it's gotten will understand and think about domestic violence in a way that's never happened before."
More work lies ahead, though.
"They're headed in the right direction," she said, "but they're not at their destination yet."