The NFL’s domestic violence problem

Editor’s note: Several NFL star players have been in the news recently because they face criminal charges of domestic violence. The case that has gotten the most attention involves the Baltimore Ravens’ three-time Pro-Bowl running back Ray Rice.

On Sept. 8, celebrity news website TMZ released a video of an incident that happened during Valentine’s Day weekend. In the video, Rice punches his then-fiancee (and now wife, Janay Rice) in the face, knocking her out cold. Then he drags her limp body from the elevator.

Weeks before TMZ released this video, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had handed down a two-game suspension to Rice for the incident. After the video’s public release, the Ravens terminated Rice’s contract and the NFL suspended him indefinitely. Despite reports that the NFL received the video in April, Goodell and other officials have claimed that they had not seen the portion of the tape showing Rice beating Janay Rice before TMZ made it public.

Goodell and the NFL have come under fire for the handling of this incident, accused of turning a blind eye to domestic violence. Today we hear from local gender studies scholars who share their insights on the topic. — Connie Post

From Julianne Weinzimmer, Wright State University:

America’s trivialization of domestic violence

I have been asked to comment on a recent piece in the NY Times about the aftermath of allegations against NFL players concerning intimate partner violence and child abuse, and its possible impact on female fandom. If the central concern here is whether women might stop supporting their teams and revenue will be lost, then I have no comment. I am not concerned about a $9 billion industry possibly losing money because female fans are disenfranchised by NFL ambivalence toward violence against women. What I am very concerned about is what is clearly, to me, not an NFL-specific issue, but a societal-level issue. We both normalize and trivialize male violence, including domestic abuse.

We normalize male violence through how we define masculinity. I teach college courses on gender and from day one I make my disciplinary perspective clear — we have created a gender system built around notions of male superiority, valuing traits like aggression and domination for men, while conversely teaching girls and women that being feminine means being passive, docile, sweet.

Across our life course, girls and later women are simultaneously praised and undermined for expressing emotions, as boys and men learn to distance themselves from anything so-called feminine, including showing emotions like fear, sorrow and most relevant here, compassion. Anyone who has parented a young boy will attest to the fact that this suppression of emotions has to be learned. It is no surprise then, given the gender system we perpetuate, that men commit a disproportionate amount of violence in society and that women are often the recipients of it.

Intimate partner violence is not specific to any race, socioeconomic status, geographical location or sexual orientation. It is no more a professional athlete issue than it was a music industry issue when Chris Brown was in the spotlight or a Hollywood issue when it was Charlie Sheen. (And just look at how devastating the press and public obsession with these two cases has been for their careers. Chris Brown performed on The Tonight Show just last week and Charlie Sheen was rewarded with a new sitcom about his Anger Management). This is all part of the trivialization of violence against women.

The NFL is a profit-driven industry, so if the league perceives that creating a tough policy on violence or collaborating with advocacy groups might mitigate damage to its reputation, such change will happen. These recent allegations of violence have at least facilitated a positive shift within what is perhaps the most classic example of American masculinity — football. After all, football players prove their manliness by using their own bodies as weapons and show no fear, even as they face the possibility of repeated brain trauma. But we shouldn’t allow questions about the NFL’s profitability to distract us from the larger problems: the ways in which domestic violence is enabled by our cultural attitudes — attitudes we must work toward changing.

Ms. Jennifer Renee Martin, a major in the Wright State Women’s Studies program, insightfully captured this perspective: “Instead of treating domestic violence exclusively as a victim’s shameful secret or a perpetrator’s hidden sin, it needs to be recognized as an all-inclusive societal issue. Our tolerance of domestic violence as a society makes us as accountable for it as the ones who act it out.”

Julianne Weinzimmer, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology/Anthropology. Her areas of specialization include gender, sexuality, social stratification and inequality, race and ethnicity, and ethnic conflict and identity.

From Brooke Wagner, Wittenberg University

The price of violence on and off the field

NFL has a violence problem — and they know it. Almost two weeks ago, research conducted by the NFL examining the link between concussions and long term neurological damage was released. The report states that more than one third of NFL players will suffer brain injuries — leading to Alzheimer’s, dementia, ALS, and Parkinson’s disease — directly related to the violence they experience on the field. Half of these players will show symptoms of degenerative diseases much earlier than the general population, with former players as young as 30 having already shown symptoms.

With an average career length of seven years and nearly 1,700 players each season in the NFL, almost 80 of the 240 players that leave the league each year will be diagnosed with moderate to severe brain injuries. The cost of the physicality on players was a topic of national discussion throughout the last season. This year the attention is turning to domestic violence and child abuse, and the efforts of some to cover it up, taking focus from the deeper systemic problem of violence on the field.

Football is barbaric — and we love it for that reason. Even with pads and helmets, injuries are abundant. Violence is principle to the sport; it maintains viewership. During any taped game, you will see replays of the worst tackles, of limbs breaking, and of the clear embodiment of pain among unfortunate players.

When players are benched due to injury, the public concern is usually focused on the effect it has on one’s fantasy football team, rather than the physical well-being of our gridiron heroes. What’s worse is that players and fans alike have been indoctrinated into a system that worships brute athletic achievement at the expense of physical health.

The recent domestic and child abuse scandal, though egregious, invites the NFL to create more punitive policies and preventive programs to reduce violence off the field. But what policies and programs can the NFL create to reduce the cost of violence on the field? This scandal has become a national distraction, allowing the NFL to assume a moral high ground by rebranding the league as a women- and family-friendly place.

But the NFL is not a friendly space for women, evidenced by the leagues attempt to hide incidences of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse cases.

I have no doubt that the NFL will regroup and move on from this scandal. They may even prevent future off-the-field abuse through their preventive programs and now public condemnation of domestic violence. Meanwhile the league itself allows violence to continue on the field, knowing over 30 percent of their players will lose their ability to communicate and fully function in society. By all means, the proposed work by the NFL to save spouses, partners and children from abuse is a step in the right direction. But if the NFL is really concerned about families, shouldn’t they work toward saving husbands and fathers too?

Brooke Wagner is an assistant professor of Sociology and director of the Criminology and Criminal Justice program at Wittenberg University.

Breaking News in the NFL: You Can’t ‘Add Women and Stir’

Corinne Daprano and Leslie Picca

With the recent controversy around Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Jonathan Dwyer, Greg Hardy, Jovan Belcher and (insert latest scandal here), there has been much commentary on women in the NFL, the prevalence of domestic violence and the impact on fans.

Despite gains made by females athletes and coaches in such sports as basketball and soccer, the objectification of women is old news in the NFL, from on-the-field cheerleaders in skimpy outfits (plus, the five pending lawsuits filed by cheerleaders over wages) to the bikini-clad women in NFL sponsors’ commercials. Women receive a subtle message that they aren’t part of the football fan-base, but instead should be supporters of the “real” (male) fan-base. This message extends to women seeking employment in the NFL. In conversations with our female students in sport management, many aspire to work in the MLB and NBA, but most don’t even consider a career with the NFL.

According to Richard Lapchick, author of the 2014 Racial & Gender Report Card (RGRC), the NFL earned an “A” for its racial hiring practices and a “C-” for its gender hiring practices. And, there has been some progress; the league office has increased the number of women and men of color at or above the vice president level over the past several years. Additionally, the league office has undertaken several initiatives to promote inclusivity and diversity. Among these efforts has been the establishment of an affinity group for female employees of the NFL, diversity training, and an increase in diversity recruitment efforts.

While these steps by the league office are commendable, these efforts seem to have barely filtered down to the teams themselves. According to the 2014 RGRC, NFL teams received a “B” for their hiring of team vice presidents of color and an “F” for the number of women who currently serve as team vice presidents. The grades for senior administrators aren’t much better — a “B+” for race and “F“ for gender. And, let’s face it: Roger Goodell may be the commissioner of the NFL, but until his bosses — the 32 team owners — take the issue of diversity and inclusion seriously, the culture of the NFL is unlikely to change.

The NFL league office can hire more women like the four recently hired to advise the league on its domestic violence and sexual assault policies. They can hire a female to be their new chief marketing officer to help restore the league’s image, but they still seem to be missing the boat. Token inclusion doesn’t translate to a shift in a chilly climate at best (and physical hostility at worst) toward women. As the Black Women’s Roundtable has pointed out, the league, so far, has not included any African-American women in new advisory roles, despite the fact that 67 percent of NFL players are African-American.

Yes, the NFL is a business and should be concerned with their bottom line. However, pandering to fans by “stirring in” a few token female hires as a reactionary strategy to bad press won’t sit well when the next scandal hits.

Corinne Daprano is an associate professor of Sports Management at the University of Dayton. Leslie Picca is an associate professor of Society at the University of Dayton. They co-teach a course called “Sports and Bodies,” and both are parents of children in football-loving households.

From Debbie Matheson, Cedarville University:

The Need for Men’s Voices

Domestic violence has been propelled to the forefront of popular culture. We have been shocked by the evidence from the watchful eye of an elevator surveillance camera and the reality that a professional football player publicly acted in a grotesque manner. In recent months, six NFL players have been charged with domestic violence offenses. Domestic violence is intense and prevalent around the world; here in the United States, one in three women will experience domestic violence in her adult life and one in 14 men.

The government, the general public and the church have responsibilities in intervening with domestic violence in measurable steps from laws, support of neighbors and the pulpit. Domestic violence is a crime. Ohio Revised Code 2919.25 reads: “(A) No person shall knowingly cause or attempt to cause physical harm to a family or household member. (B) No person shall recklessly cause serious physical harm to a family or household member. (C) No person, by threat of force, shall knowingly cause a family or household member to believe that the offender will cause imminent physical harm to the family or household member.”

This definition outlines when law enforcement and the judicial system will intervene; however, there is need to look at an academic domestic violence definition — “a pattern of unhealthy behavior that is used to gain and maintain power and control in an intimate relationship” (Family Violence Prevention Center, 2005). Children growing up in homes with unhealthy patterns are learning unhealthy relationship skills and an expectation of future relationship dysfunction.

How does the general public respond to their neighbor experiencing this private and personal abuse? The NFL is publicly struggling to define the correct level of response, to send a clear message that domestic violence will not be tolerated within the private lives of the players. Outlining expectations is helpful. However, evidence-based intervention services for victims and those abusing need to be advertised and exercised.

Men’s voices are essential to the ongoing discussion toward challenging men to evaluate their relationship patterns and hold one another accountable as statistics show they are the predominant group using violent behavior. There are dangers in the release of the elevator surveillance video. For men who need to reflect on their personal behavior patterns, they can excuse their behavior as not as bad as the intense and gruesome level of violence captured on video.

Cedarville University’s Social Work program actively, since inception, supports the local domestic violence services through student education and internship placements. Students are trained through a biblical world and life view being taught the value that God has placed on people, His creation. The students are prepared to think broadly to evaluate ideas, practices and theories within the framework of biblical instruction. Over 20 students have served at Family Violence Prevention Center working with victims through individual assessment, group education, basic need support, child development activities and with offender intervention. Currently three Cedarville alumni serve on staff and one alumnus on the Board of Trustees.

Domestic Violence can only be effectively addressed if the public outrage turns to supportive action to prevent and intervene within this family crisis. We are all called to action. What will you do?

Debbie Matheson is the executive director of the Family Violence Prevention Center of Greene County and is a field instructor for the social work program at Cedarville University.

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