When the video of Ray Rice punching his now-wife Janay in the face in a casino elevator was leaked on Sept. 8, the spike in call volume to the National Domestic Violence Hotline was so intense — up as much as 84 percent in the first few days — the hotline was overwhelmed. Nearly half of the daily calls went unanswered.
“We didn’t have the financial resources to bring in extra people or to offer overtime," Katie Ray-Jones, chief executive of the Austin, Texas-based organization told TODAY.
The notorious video involving Ravens running back Rice, this week's arrest of another NFL player Jonathan Dwyer for "head-butting" his wife — along with Meredith Vieira's stunning revelation of a past abusive relationship, and the popularity of Twitter hashtags #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft are all encouraging advocates who hope the ongoing publicity may save women who are still in abusive relationships.
“Callers were saying they saw the [Rice] video and didn’t want that to happen to them,” Ray-Jones said. “Women said 'I’m worried he will kill me next time. I need help.'” On Friday, the hotline said the NFL will provide financial and promotional support to the organization over the next five years, which will help hire more advocates to answer calls, chats and texts from domestic violence victims.
On Friday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the NFL is overhauling its conduct policies and that the league will strongly punish unacceptable behavior. "We acknowledge the mistake, my mistake, and we will do better going forward." In addition supporting the Hotline, the league is partnering with the National Sexual Violence Hotline.
While Safe Horizon, a national crime victim service agency, hasn't experienced a surge in call volume, Juanito Vargas, associate vice president of community programs and hotline, says many of the women calling in have specifically talked about the Rice video.
Vargas added, however, that many women who are still in abusive relationships may not even be aware of the situation. “The lives of victims of domestic violence can be pretty chaotic,” he explained. “And being exposed to what is going on on TV and being able to watch it in many cases is a luxury.”
Even more than the media attention to the elevator punch, Rice's punishment and the anger directed at the NFL's handling of domestic violence cases and policies on personal conduct sends a message that abusers should be held accountable, experts believe.
And chilling accounts from respected celebrities like Vieira also help others understand it’s not their fault that their husbands or boyfriends are hurting them, Ray-Jones said.
“It’s a powerful statement,” she said.
On Wednesday, Vieira told viewers of her show about her abusive boyfriend and the guilt she felt after each incident, when he swore he'd never do it again. “I hid in the stairwell for two hours until he came, again crying, 'I promise I won't do this again,’” Vieira said. “I continued to stay in that relationship until I was offered a job in another state and that's where I felt I had the ability to get away."
People often wonder why victims don’t just leave.
What they don’t understand is that abusers set up a situation where their victims are made to feel too powerless and too frightened to even try to escape, Katie Ray-Jones said.
Linda Carroll is a regular contributor to NBCNews.com and TODAY.com. She is co-author of "The Concussion Crisis: Anatomy of a Silent Epidemic” and the recently released “Duel for the Crown: Affirmed, Alydar, and Racing’s Greatest Rivalry”