The NFL’s Steps Against Domestic Violence Aren’t Enough

Whether you watched the Super Bowl for the game, for the commercials, for the halftime show, or perhaps not at all, chances are you saw or heard about the first anti-domestic violence commercial that aired during the big event. The commercial was sponsored by NO MORE in partnership with the NFL. It was placed among many other hard-hitting commercials that stood out in stark contrast to the normally comedic advertisements. If you missed it, you can watch the chilling video here:

It’s no secret that the NFL has fallen under much scrutiny this year, as scandals surrounding the mishandling of domestic abuse cases involving players like Ray Rice were at the forefront of media headlines. The airing of this anti-domestic violence commercial is one of many steps that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has promised to put in place in order to address issues of domestic violence in the National Football League and in general.

These steps include donating $25 million over five years to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, donating $1 million to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, training/workshops for league employees and players, and promising harsher punishments for players who commit acts of domestic violence.

In a letter sent to NFL team owners, Goodell outlined the above efforts and guidelines for future punishments. He writes, “violations of the Personal Conduct Policy regarding assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault that involve physical force will be subject to a suspension without pay of six games for a first offense, with consideration given to mitigating factors, as well as a longer suspension when circumstances warrant.” While some of these special circumstances are outlined (such as banishment from the NFL for repeat offenses), it’s a little unclear what other actions would constitute harsher penalties on top of the standard six-game suspension.

A long history of inconsistency with punishing domestic violence cases prompted this change. Take A.J. Jefferson, who was cut from the Minnesota Vikings and suspended for four games after being charged with choking his girlfriend (and who was later signed by the Seattle Seahawks). Or Daryl Washington, an Arizona Cardinals linebacker who pleaded guilty to assaulting the mother of his child, but faced no league punishment for the incident. And more recently, Ray Rice, who was suspended for only two games after footage was released of him brutally assaulting his wife in an elevator.

So it’s great that Goodell is outlining more specific suspension penalties to help address these inconsistences moving forward. But the subjectivity in enforcing harsher penalties when necessary, and whether or not the NFL will work harder to investigate issues of domestic abuse in the first place, remains to be seen.

These steps are certainly a big move for the NFL (despite the fact that they arguably wouldn’t have started anti-domestic violence efforts at all if their PR crises hadn’t forced them to) and are a step in the right direction. They should also be taken with a grain of salt, however, when put into the perspective that the $26 million donated to domestic violence causes is a very tiny fraction of the $10 billion that the NFL rakes in each year.

It is important not to downplay the impact that any money has in helping domestic abuse organizations and shelters that desperately need resources. But throwing money at the issue still won’t fix the root cause. And while advertisements like the anti-domestic violence commercial that aired during the Super Bowl bring important conversations to the social media sphere, one thing is still clear: We need to talk about domestic violence.

We need to talk about domestic violence because none of the above efforts by the NFL work to address the long history and culture of violence against women that sports like football inherently encourage. Let’s recall that the sport of football was created as a way for men to assert their masculinity and regain power in response to more women entering the predominantly male workplace and women’s rights movements in general (for more reading on this topic, check out Michael Messner’s article “When bodies are weapons: masculinity and violence in sport.” It’s a great read).

Given the violent nature of sports like football specifically, where coaches in the locker room can be heard telling players to “kill” the other team, it’s no surprise that players have a hard time turning off the drive for violence that the sport demands when they exit the field. But bringing more attention to this culture of violence might help players learn how to separate the two, as would changing the types of “motivational” speeches being given by coaches in locker rooms.

Also consider steroid use, which occurs despite illegal substances being banned, and has been linked with increased aggression in many instances. Factor in the wide range of traumatic brain injuries (a result of repeated concussions, despite the NFL taking efforts to increase enforcement on overly aggressive tackles), which can be associated with increased aggression, and it’s no surprise that domestic violence is a big issue for the NFL specifically.

So we need to talk about domestic violence in the context of the NFL, because there’s a history of lax enforcement and a history of aggression that goes back to the creation of the sport. We need to consider the culture of a sport that tells players to kill their opponent on the field but expects them to turn that anger off when they leave it, and think about what could be done to eliminate that.

We need to talk about domestic violence because it’s a huge problem inside the football stadium, and because it’s an even bigger problem outside of the stadium. After all, the arrest rates per year for acts of domestic violence committed by members of the NFL are much lower than the national average for men aged 25-29. Keep in mind that the available arrest statistics also aren’t indicative of the actual number of domestic violence crimes committed, since police crime data only factors in arrests made and crimes reported to police. The real number of people who experience intimate partner violence is much higher.

We need to talk about domestic violence, because it’s an issue reaching much farther than the NFL.

We need to talk about domestic violence because there are 18-year-old girls who believe that if your boyfriend hits you it’s a “sign of love” because “not just anyone is going to go to jail for you.”

We need to talk about domestic violence because 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.

We need to talk about domestic violence because 1 in 7 men are victims of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetimes.

We need to talk about domestic violence because people of every race, gender, sexual orientation, and income are affected by domestic abuse, but most people only see women as victims.

So let’s talk about domestic violence, because it’s an epidemic that reaches much farther than the NFL’s football fields. Let’s talk about domestic violence until real efforts are made by the NFL to combat instances of domestic violence besides monetary donations and promises to host workshops for players. Until we recognize the aggressive nature of a sport that encourages violence against women and against other men, and do something to change those narratives. Until everybody understands what constitutes intimate partner violence in the first place. Until we all recognize that anyone can be a victim, regardless of gender. Let’s talk about domestic violence, so that someone you know or love doesn’t become one of the above statistics.

For more information on domestic violence, check out the following resources:

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673

CDC National Intimate Partner And Sexual Violence Survey

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