The NFL has a problem.
Okay, the NFL clearly has more than one problem and anyone who is following the league, or just happens to own a television set, or has been in any way alive in the last few months, is aware that the NFL has a problem. But from this writer’s perspective the real problem is not yet being discussed.
It is not my intention to minimize any individual incident, but ultimately—as bad as it has been—the NFL is not indicting itself because of one or two (or three or four) specific missteps. They are indicting themselves by purporting a consistent image of condoning and teaching violence against people who cannot or will not defend themselves.
It isn’t just Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, and Adrian Peterson; this problem includes Richie Incognito, Aaron Hernandez, and all the way back to Ray Lewis and far beyond.
As the influence of social media increases and the ability to hide transgression decreases, the NFL is having a harder time arguing that its sport does not have a fundamental link to violence that spills over, off the gridiron and into the world of people who aren’t built and fine-tuned specifically for doling out punishment.
The national media has couched much of this issue as a problem the NFL is going to have with women. Others have suggested that in order for such a problem to have any real consequences, those women, and those who support them, would either need to organize boycotts or get sponsors to halt their support of the NFL.
Through much well-reasoned discussion about the realities of cleaning up the league, the conclusion seems to have been reached that the NFL is in no long-term trouble as a result of recent, widely publicized events because the fans will still come out to the games and the sponsors aren’t pulling support of a money-making machine.
But I argue that the NFL does not have a woman problem, they have a parent problem. And that makes all the difference.
It is a sad truth that many of us don’t empathize with happenings beyond our own lives and many women have a deeper emotional connection to the NFL team they love than they do to the concept of domestic violence, which may have never affected them. This is why many have concluded that nothing will happen. The NFL is seared into our national consciousness; it is so powerful and successful that it’s hard to imagine fans no longer tailgating and setting their fantasy lineups before Sunday.
But such thinking is shortsighted.
The NFL is in real danger of losing its place in the zeitgeist and Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson are just the tip of the iceberg. A complete picture is being drawn with much more information than in years past of the NFL as a league where you are likely to be concussed, bullied, turned into a bully, have your worst demons tolerated and excused, and be groomed to be more generally violent while simultaneously being subject to the whims of an omnipotent commissioner.
All that, shorter career spans across the board, and no guaranteed contracts? The elite athletes of tomorrow won’t want to sign up for that.
The president of the United States said he would not want a theoretical son to play football due to the concussion issue and that feeling is only growing with American parents as the NFL continues to be the poster child for grown men who can’t solve problems without hitting things.
When given a choice, today’s parents are far more likely to choose a sport that doesn’t employ violence as a primary condition and whose instinct isn’t to cover up the residue thereof and spend years lying about the health impacts of concussions in order to protect their own bottom line. And, of course, it would hurt that bottom line to provide these guys with adequate healthcare, so they don’t until they are sued into doing the smallest amount of the right thing they can get away with.
What empirical evidence do any of us have to suggest that the NFL would ever place the safety of its own players—or their families—over their insatiable thirst for money?
This isn’t just about Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. This is also about Junior Seau.
This is about what Norah O’Donnell brilliantly framed in the question, “Did the NFL drop the ball? Or was the NFL willfully ignorant about what was on this tape?” It was the perfect question of Roger Goodell whose complete non-answer ironically spoke volumes.
“Well, we certainly didn’t know what was on the tape. But we have been very open and honest. And I have also—from two weeks ago when I acknowledged that we didn’t get this right. That’s my responsibility. And I’m accountable for that,” said Goodell.
So, I’ll mark you down for willfully ignorant.
And it is manifest in another response to another O’Donnell question. It was the first question on my mind when the story first broke and the first out of Jon Stewart’s mouth when interviewing Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on The Daily Show at the height of the controversy: what did they think happened?
As O’Donnell put it, “Did you really need to see a videotape of Ray Rice punching her in the face to make this decision?”
Everything about the way the Ray Rice case was handled smacks of willful ignorance. The concussion scandal downright reeks of it. If the NFL continues to bury their collective heads in the seemingly never-ending desert of their own piles of money, they may suffocate under the weight of the things they choose not to learn.
Willfully ignorant of the long-term consequences of the violence done both to and by your players both on and off the field. Willfully ignorant of the damage it’s doing … eventually … to your league.
I used to love the game of football, in many ways I still do, but I quit in what was essentially a high school version of the Richie Incognito story. I was Jonathan Martin. And I knew my coaches (for the most part) were so focused on desensitizing us to violence—in fact demanding it at all times—that they never had a moment to teach us where the line is.
Some will still play football because, well, it’s damn fun. Some will still play because it could send them to college. But the elite, best of the best, are growing up in a world where the line between aggressiveness and violence is being more clearly defined and the NFL finds themselves on the wrong side of that line.
The issue that they face now is not that fans won’t show up this Sunday over the Ray Rice incident. They should be worried about the Sunday eight or 10 years from now when all the best athletes who are currently in middle and high school have chosen basketball, baseball, soccer, or some other sport because Mom and Dad would rather their son not grow up to be a woman beater with soup for brains.
And even if the NFL decides to suddenly become proactive on these issues, they may still be in trouble. For every person like me who abhors the bloodlust often associated with the sport, there is a radio sports jockey who uses the term “wussification” on a daily basis. “Wussification” is of course an FCC friendly version of a gender-slur meant to demean men by comparing them women.
To some, depleting the violence means taking the soul out of the game. But how will fans react when it is the talent at the high end that is depleted?
I hope there is a middle ground here because I have no wish to see the NFL disappear, but they may be caught between doing what’s right and pleasing the hardcore fan base that they have been cultivating to celebrate violence all these years while lying about the consequences at every turn.
The NFL can—and the NFL should—do something soon or they risk, like their commissioner, being the last to realize that they are becoming irrelevant.