Late last week, the NFL indefinitely suspended Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for domestic violence in a showing of its “zero-tolerance” stance. A security video of the incident in which Rice clocked his then fiancee in a Las Vegas hotel elevator was obtained by the website TMZ, and it is a sickening thing to behold. The league—which had previously suspended Rice for a paltry two games—then backpedaled and penalized Rice much more harshly. The indefinite suspension has led to Rice being released by the Ravens and has raised questions as to how much league Commissioner Roger Goodell’s office knew and when it knew it. (For his part, Goodell has claimed he never saw the video before last week, despite the incident having occurred much earlier this year.) It’s easy to question the truthfulness of that assertion, and many have and continue to do so.
Journalists and sportscasters who cover the NFL have been put in a difficult situation by this. When the same people you cover and who, thus, provide your livelihood are at fault, it’s a big step to criticize them. Access can be everything when it comes to doing the job. The truth is that this probably isn’t a job for former coaches and players who are used to talking about X’s and O’s, but punting this over to the “hard news” people isn’t the answer, either. The people who watch the NFL are also the ones that need to hear about this, and the surest way to get them to do that is by including it as part of NFL coverage. While sports news organizations have shied away from finger-pointing, a few individuals such as Hannah Storm and James Brown have stepped up at least to recognize the problem as a societal one, as well as a league one.
Nevertheless, the league can’t skate on this one. The figures may show that the league has no greater domestic abuse problem than American society, itself, but the NFL is, itself, a cultural leader. This violent game is, for better or worse, a part of the American fabric. It is, by a long stretch, the most popular sport in the country–nothing else even comes close–and that gives it a special responsibility. From August through January, NFL football is ubiquitous and inescapable. It doesn’t just follow society, it helps create it. You don’t get to play a part in creating a culture and then disclaim any part in its faults. As a cultural leader, the league has a responsibility to that culture, as well as to its own fans, 45% of whom are women. If nothing else, the notoriously image-conscious league should be looking to demonstrate its concern for nearly half of its own fan base.
The league can do one of two things here. It can step up and join a serious conversation about violence against women—with real enforcement against transgressors—or it can hide its collective head in the sand and keep talking about a societal problem, without acknowledging its own role in creating it. Hopefully, it will choose the better path. The NFL glorifies violence on the field, gives massive amounts of money to young men who may be ill-equipped to handle it, and apparently avoids learning unpleasant facts that might change its behavior. I’m not saying Roger Goodell knew what happened in that elevator. I’m saying he had a responsibility to find out, and he failed horribly on that count. Sweeping this under the rug is no good. Society should have zero tolerance for that.