Before we discuss the content of the NFL’s new guidelines relating to domestic violence, let’s be clear: the NFL has about as much of a commitment to do something about violence against women as British Petroleum—or is it Beyond Petroleum—has to cleaning up the environment.
Both are multibillion-dollar corporations with one job and one job only, and that is to maximize their bottom line. Sometimes that project demands acknowledging public relations nightmares, especially when consumers recoil in horror.
Just as British Petroleum invested millions in green technologies and environmental cleanups after the seething outrage that followed the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the NFL found itself embroiled in a public relations disaster after suspending Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for only two games following release of a video that showed him dragging his unconscious then-fiancée Janay Palmer by her hair out of a hotel elevator.
This week, there was a near-universal outcry that the NFL’s moral compass was disturbingly out of whack and the organization was behaving like a proudly belligerent totem of misogyny, as Brandon Meriweather was suspended for two games for an on-field hit, and Josh Gordon received a year’s suspension for allegedly smoking weed.
The din coupled with the PR hit was too much for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to stomach, and he admitted as much in his statement outlining the league’s new policies, saying, “My disciplinary decision [regarding Ray Rice] led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn’t get it right.”
There was no such statement after Kasandra Perkins was killed by Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher, who then took his life in front of his coach. Instead, the game went on as planned. The outcry from the media after that in-season tragedy was mild. The only person among the NFL’s sports media partners to even speak about it politically was Bob Costas, who turned the focus to gun access and not violence against women. That was brave, as the backlash against him demonstrated. It was also a wasted opportunity.
Now, because there is an uproar about Ray Rice in the dog days of summer, without the distraction of actual games, the league realized it was paying a price, and Goodell is attempting to use his unparalleled public relations machine to reclaim something the Ray Rice decision cost him: a moral high ground as the Great White Father committed to disciplining his unruly charges and armed with ownership over every aspect of their personal lives.
Under the leadership of Goodell, as Aaron Gordon has written brilliantly, the NFL has attempted to market itself not only as a corporation, not only as a sport, but as a moral force: an institution to provide ethical guidance for us all. But taking moral guidance from the NFL is like being lectured about diplomacy by Benjamin Netanyahu. This is a commissioner who talks on and on about his concern for the health and safety of players, while trying to extend the season to eighteen games. This is a commissioner who has pledged to penalize players for using on-field slurs, yet defends the name of one of his billion-dollar brands, a dictionary-defined slur. This is a commissioner who talks about how much the NFL cares about communities, while demanding hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies for billionaires, as meanwhile our schools and hospitals remain in disrepair. This is a commissioner desperate to increase his market share among women football fans and who believes that coming down hard on domestic violence is the way to do it.
As for the plan itself, the best part, as Jessica Luther expressed, is that the NFL has pledged to spend much more time and energy at rookie and player orientations to actually discuss domestic violence. This is important. I’ve been to rookie orientation sessions, and when women are discussed, if discussed at all, they are talked about as people whom players should look at as predators trying to get pregnant or always ready to falsely accuse players of sexual assault. The discussions are how to avoid such situations. Any efforts to discuss women with young players as actual human beings should be welcomed. Luther talks about other initiatives aimed at education and awareness, which hopefully will actually be implemented.
But the section of the new conduct policy that is far more problematic is what we could call the carceral part. Roger Goodell has decided to place the passing of judgment of domestic violence completely under his own power as commissioner without any input from the NFL Players Association. It now resides beneath the umbrella of the NFL’s personal conduct policy. That means Goodell has total control as judge, jury and executioner over punishment on the basis of his assessment of what happened in a family’s personal life.
He has pledged to suspend players on a first offense for six games and then give them as much as a lifetime ban for a second infraction. Under the personal conduct policy, he can do this in advance of any trial or any sort of anything in a court of law.
These kinds of punishments could very well serve to discourage victims of domestic violence from coming forward, because of the price that could potentially be paid by having their partner lose their career. Anything that discourages a process where women can turn to the league in confidentiality for legal help or guidance is simply wrong.
In other words, it is missing any concept of “restorative justice”: the idea that solutions to domestic violence may require approaches that don’t reside in the punitive, or in harming the economic lives of the women and children in danger.
There is also nothing in the plan that addresses one of the uglier parts of the Ray Rice fiasco: the ways the Baltimore Ravens media machine defended and protected Rice with a big “no big deal” as the team response. This is classic Goodell: go after the players, protect the teams.
But perhaps most glaringly, the plan is missing any conversation about what role the combat of the game itself and the ill effects of head injuries may play in bringing the violence home. Why is it missing this? Because, once again, that might make people actually stop watching the sport, and that’s not the purpose this plan is supposed to serve. This is about reaching women and securing their connection to the league as potential consumers for NFL products and merchandise. Goodell’s slogan might as well be “Hate the player, don’t hate the game.”
Roger Goodell and the NFL—like many corporations before and since—were pressured and embarrassed into doing something. Tragically, in the hands of a league that journalist Steve Almond calls “a nihilistic engine of greed,” every move must be put under this kind of scrutiny and subject on principle to skepticism. That is something they have well earned.