I grew up in Buffalo, New York — home of Buffalo wings and the Buffalo Bills, who will kick off the NFL preseason on Sunday by playing the New York Giants. We were die-hard football fans: My mother often tuned in for games, and my grandmother hosted Super Bowl parties throughout my childhood to cheer on our beloved home team. We ordered pizza and chicken wings, the grown-ups drank Labatts, and my brothers and I got to drink pop (which my mother didn’t allow in our house).
I didn’t feel back then that football was for men only; for us, it was a family activity. In recent years, women, who now account for 45 percent of the National Football League’s fan base, have taken a more active interest in the game. Fifty-five percent of women report watching regular season football, and far more women watch the Super Bowl than the Oscars (a.k.a. the “Super Bowl for women”). Starting around five years ago, the NFL launched an aggressive marketing campaign to sell women licensed NFL merchandise such as this comely Johnny Manziel (“My Man Ziel”) T-shirt and Buffalo Bills bikini bottoms (“The perfect way to show your Buffalo Bills pride while you’re catching some rays,” according to the NFL’s online store). No less powerful a woman than former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has posed in a cut-for-her Josh Cribbs jersey.
In light of our growing awareness of the link between the game and traumatic brain injury, some Americans have started to rethink the morality of watching football. A group of players’ families recently sued the NFL for concealing the dangers of multiple concussions. We now know how devastating football can be when a player is injured — for the player and his family. Another thing we know by now is how the culture of pro football justifies, perpetuates and excuses violence against women.
Looking the other way
Research about whether male athletes are more likely than men in general to commit violence against women is inconclusive, but evidence abounds that professional athletes are not punished by their leagues, teams or the criminal justice system as harshly or as consistently as members of the general public. Thanks to a spate of high-profile cases, it’s become clear in recent years that the NFL has a higher tolerance for violence against women than for almost any other form of misconduct. A 2012 tally by Slate’s Justin Peters revealed that of the NFL’s 32 teams, 21 employed at least one player who’d been charged with domestic violence or sexual assault. Outside the NFL, you can actually lose your job for attacking a woman.
Is there something about the game itself that makes men who play it likelier to hit women — and makes their bosses likelier to look the other way when they do? Football certainly relies on brute force and ritualized violence for player motivation and viewer titillation. As Steve Almond wrote in The New York Times, reflecting on his youthful love of the game, “part of my attraction to football was the thrill of such violent transactions.” Maybe if you smack people around for a living, it feels more natural to smack them around at home, too. Maybe when you’re a male pro athlete, accustomed to fat paychecks, VIP treatment and screaming fans, you have a lower tolerance for not getting your way at home.
Football, like Buffalo wings, may always be a guilty pleasure. But I refuse to support any organization that displays as much contempt for women as the NFL has.
Given that 67 percent of NFL players are black, racist stereotypes surely factor into media coverage of players’ alleged crimes. We hear more about violent football players than about violent baseball players in part because football players are likelier to be black. Maybe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league’s majority-white management think it’s unfair to punish young athletes who are, for the most part, black for something they can’t help doing. Or maybe they assume that assaulting women is as much a part of black male culture as being good at sports is. Both assumptions are obviously wrong.
Discipline and punish?
In 1995 Bennie Blades, a former safety for the Detroit Lions, disclosed his fears to ESPN about what he saw as a changing atmosphere surrounding the treatment of women in sports: “It’s going to be a lot harder for us to get out of trouble now. Three years ago, you smacked a girl around and people maybe said she asked for it. Now, whether she asked for it or not, they’re going to haul you off.”
Blades needn’t have feared: While domestic violence is arguably treated more seriously today than it was in 1995, the NFL is still as reluctant as ever to discipline players for engaging in it. When Goodell took over as commissioner in 2007, he instituted a personal-conduct policy that would allow him to punish players, regardless of whether they were found guilty of a crime, for “conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the National Football League.”
Goodell’s list of prohibited behavior specifically includes domestic violence. Yet this month Ray Rice was only suspended for two games after he acknowledged having done what he was caught on tape doing: dragging the unconscious body of his now wife out of an elevator after he hit her so hard she blacked out. The Daily Beast published a handy list of actions the NFL considers worse than knocking a woman out cold, including smoking marijuana, earning money for signing autographs and deliberately injuring a fellow player.
Rice apologized — and, disturbingly, so did his wife, for her “role” in the “incident.” ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith then blundered his way into an appalling on-air call for women “to do your part” not to “provoke wrong actions.” (Smith’s remarks have since earned him a one-week suspension from ESPN.)
Patrick Stewart shared a more enlightened point of view last spring, when he recounted to an audience at Houston’s Comicpalooza what various medical professionals told his mother, who was beaten by Stewart’s father throughout the actor’s childhood: “‘Mrs. Stewart, you must have done something to provoke him; Mrs. Stewart, it takes two to make an argument’ — wrong, wrong! My mother did nothing to provoke that, and even if she had, violence is never, ever a choice that a man should make, ever!” If only Commissioner Goodell were interested in sending that message to his players.
Millions of people still watch football: it’s entertaining, and it’s a big business. As Michael Sokolove has argued in The New York Times, “Watching football has become ... like eating meat. We have more information about the carnage involved ... But we have a taste for it, so we do not want to think too hard about it.”
Football, like Buffalo wings, may always be a guilty pleasure. But I refuse to support any organization that displays as much contempt for women as the NFL has. Keith Olbermann recently compared the NFL’s treatment of women football fans to Ray Rice’s treatment of his wife: “After he hit her, after he dragged her ... at least he didn’t try to sell her anything.” NFL players are probably no likelier than other men to abuse women. But they are much likelier to be excused by the good old boys at the NFL for doing so — in the words of the Ravens’ coach, John Harbaugh, Rice is a “heck of a guy” who made “a mistake” — and to escape serious consequences for their actions.
As for my family and me, we’re no longer buying what the NFL is selling — and neither should anyone else who thinks a man who hits a woman deserves worse than a two-game suspension. My self-respect for a fitted pink jersey? Talk about a lousy trade.