The NFL finds itself in a familiar place: trying to convince women, who make up as much as 47 percent of the league’s fan base, that they should give a damn about it. This has been an ugly off-season for the league. First, quarterback Deshaun Watson—who has been accused of coercive, “improper contact” with countless massage therapists in behavior as compulsive as it is repugnant—signed a deal for the most guaranteed money in the history of the sport. In a statement that reads as if it were ghostwritten by a PR flack at a men’s rights meeting, owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam apologized if anyone was “triggered” by the news. Watson is now suspended for the first 11 games by Commissioner Roger Goodell, but only after outrage after an independent arbitrator, former US district judge Sue L. Robinson, handed him only a six-game suspension.
Then there is the horrific tale of former Buffalo Bills rookie punter Matt Araiza. The team released him after reports came out that he has been accused of leading the violent gang rape, involving two other football players, of a 17-year-old minor on campus. The case is difficult to read about, not least because all of the alleged perpetrators were protected. The survivor went directly to the police afterward and received little help, and, after being abandoned by the criminal courts, filed a civil suit. The Bills almost surely knew about the investigation and accusations against Araiza. Teams employ former feds with more law enforcement connections than Jack Webb. Other teams that needed punters passed on Araiza even though he was the best prospect. This all points to the idea that the Bills knew but didn’t care. Only when the outrage became a din and coach Sean McDermott angered people by saying he feels bad for “everyone involved,” did the team—a Super Bowl contender—concede that a rookie punter (unlike Watson) was not worth the distractions.
What these two incidents have in common is that they both show Goodell and the league playing catch-up and following social media outrage instead of their own moral compass.
They also reveal who really makes the decisions that define the league. Goodell likes to project an image of tough-guy leadership, but he is a $64 million-a-year (Lord, I wish that was a typo) flak catcher, whose job is to apologize for the awful decisions made by the 31 billionaires who actually make the decisions that direct the league. The number of previously loyal Cleveland Browns fans who have said this is the last straw and are rejecting their fandom is like little I have seen.
The NFL is effectively telling women fans that they don’t matter. Any fan repulsed by misogyny is all of a sudden looking at a league that resembles the kind of operation that will abide horrors as long as there is not attendant media—or social media—outrage. What is particularly frustrating is that there are a small handful of women in executive positions with NFL teams. It’s a welcome development, but that hasn’t changed the dreary reality of a league that swore years ago that it would become “part of the solution” to sexual assault and violence against women. In addition, 2022 saw an exposé in The New York Times about over 30 former women staff members in the NFL who left the league. Katherine Rosman and Gary Belson wrote in their article, “They described a stifling, deeply ingrained corporate culture that demoralized some female employees, drove some to quit in frustration and left many feeling brushed aside.”
Ramona Washington, a Black woman who was a former production coordinator at the NFL Network, quit after a report she wrote about bias among managers was basically put in the shredder. As Washington told the Times, “People would say to me, ‘You really want to leave the N.F.L.?’ ‘Yes,’ I would answer, ‘with running shoes on.’”
These running shoes are currently on the feet of many more fans than the NFL cares to admit or notice. But when you consistently disrespect—at minimum—47 percent of your fan base, that is going to be felt. Until the league allows a commissioner who has the freedom—and gumption—to stand up to the franchise owners, they are going to be mired in this morass.