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Former NFL Wife Shares Her Story of Domestic Violence with MLaw Students

By Jenny Whalen
Nov. 20, 2014

The headlines may be new, but the story is one Dewan Smith-Williams has been sharing for years—only no one was listening.

The wife of former National Football League player Wally Williams, Dewan Williams visited Michigan Law Wednesday to discuss her own experience with domestic violence, the NFL, and the culture of silence surrounding both during an event sponsored by the Family Law Project, Sports Law Society and Frank Murphy Society.

Prof. Sherman Clark, Family Law Project attorney Rebecca Shiemke, and former NFL wife Dewan Smith-Williams

"I don't like to call myself a victim" Williams said. "I'm an educated woman. I always said, 'I can take care of myself,' but I couldn't back that up when I was involved in that situation. I had no idea what I signed up for when I married Wally and the NFL. I gave up my power because I allowed him to control my finances. I was to be seen and not heard. I was a bird on a perch."

What started as verbal abuse eventually turned physical, the latter often fueled by marijuana and other illegal substances, she said. Although police were called on numerous occasions, charges were never filed against Williams' husband, even on those occasions when proof of abuse was clearly visible, she said. (A recent Washington Post story said that Wally Williams denied the domestic abuse allegations Dewan Smith-Williams discussed in an interview with the newspaper.)

"Every time the police came, they talked about football," Williams said. "They would take my side of the story, then go talk to Wally. I would clean myself up and they would take the report to 'have it on file,' but nothing ever happened."

Reports to the NFL ended likewise, she said. Williams shared one episode in particular when, after confronting her husband about his stash of marijuana, he came after her with a baseball bat. "I called the NFL liaison that oversaw Wally's diversion program and let him hear what was happening in the house. I said, 'Someone needs to come here. I'm afraid. He's going to kill me or kill himself.'"

The liaison told Williams to stay where she was and, if Wally wanted to leave the house, to let him. Meanwhile, someone would come to check on her. No one ever came, Williams said. (In a recent comment to the Washington Post​, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said that the league has no record of this event.)

Another time, she ended up in the emergency room as a result of being dragged through the glass pane of a door, she said. Still another time, she recounted, she nearly dropped her infant son as her husband lifted her off the floor with his hands around her neck.

"After the emergency room incident, the police came and said you need to press charges, and I started to, but I ended up dropping them," Williams said. "I didn't want the father of my children in prison. I didn't want the embarrassment of my friends. When I did reach out to people, they weren't there for me. They saw money, a nice house, cars, and thought, 'What did I have to complain about?'"

Williams left her husband in 2006, although the two are still legally married. A nurse before her marriage, she returned to school to get her master's degree and become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner, a decision largely motivated by a desire to understand both her and her husband's behavior during those years of domestic abuse.

Given her personal experiences with the NFL, Williams is skeptical of new domestic violence policies, but said she is encouraged by the conversation now taking place in media and across the web.

"I need you all to be a voice with me," Williams told students. "You are going to be the ones to make change because it's not just (NFL Commissioner Roger) Goodell. It's the system. I am here today to share my story with you and let you know as future attorneys that the people in authority are guilty of ignoring the fact that they have allowed grown men to be criminals and have assisted them to get around the law."

Sports law Prof. Sherman Clark, who joined Williams and Family Law Project attorney Rebecca Shiemke at Wednesday's talk, echoed this idea of cultural change.

"The NFL's new domestic violence policy seems better on its face, but the NFL has a long and troubling pattern of inadequate punishment for domestic violence offenses," Clark said. "The NFL has to take proactive steps going forward. Their response has to be informed by a sense of whether the problem is endemic to sports culture or to society more generally."

Whether domestic violence is more common among athletes or not, Clark said the NFL has a unique opportunity take on this issue in a way that will resonate with the greater population. He closed with a simple principle: If you find yourself in a position to talk about domestic violence in a way that people might listen, you should be talking about this.

Pictured above (left to right): Michigan Law Prof. Sherman Clark, Family Law Project attorney Rebecca Shiemke, and former NFL wife Dewan Smith-Williams.

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