These days, no matter how much you love pro football, it’s hard to like the NFL.
I wrote this for Texas Monthly yesterday morning about the immense disappointment that accompanies the fact that the NFL is currently very invested in minimizing the significance of domestic violence.
It’s not a “you should stop watching football” or “you’re a bad person if you keep watching football” thing, because those are facile positions — it doesn’t work like that, because domestic violence can’t be both pervasive at all levels of our society AND something unique to the NFL. Encouraging people to instead cheer for the wife-beating child-haters of the NBA or Major League Baseball, or their favorite punk rock band, or their local symphony, or their nearest church, or whatever other part of the culture is ALSO entirely infused with domestic violence is a very short skip toward self-righteous hypocrisy. A culture that worships John Lennon and Gandhi as great men of peace doesn’t have the moral high ground here.
At the same time, any thinking person with a moral compass can’t cheer for their favorite NFL team right now without some twinge of conscience. Peter King, at Sports Illustrated, framed this as “If you can’t handle it, I understand, you should stop watching,” which — in that context — read very much like “If this bothers you, please leave us alone so we can celebrate how awesome the Chargers upset of the Seahawks was.” And that’s bullshit, too. People who give a shit about domestic violence don’t need to shut up their consciences or give up the game, the league needs to recognize its responsibility to those people — as well, obviously, as its much larger responsibility as a huge influencer of culture (particularly young men) — and make changes that allow it to lead on this issue, and turn the page.
In the editing process here, a couple of paragraphs calling explicitly for the removal of Roger Goodell as NFL Commissioner got cut out. Not for any big reason — the piece was just already a monster, and my editor liked the kicker that we ended with here — but let me reiterate here that A) this has to happen and B) why: Namely, because there need to be consequences even for the very wealthy, connected, and powerful, if they use those things to minimize the effects of domestic violence, which the NFL has been doing since (at the very earliest) Ray Rice was first arrested. The subsequent video, the photos of Adrian Peterson’s beaten 4-year-old children, the fact that Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald were on the field on week one — all of that is evidence of the league’s sin, but they’re not the issue. “What did Goodell know and when did he know it” is a misdirection. The real question is “How did he use his position to blame victims for their own abuse, and to treat abuse and domestic violence as though they’re no big deal.” Those are the things that we’re ultimately outraged about: That the NFL enables and dismisses domestic violence. The rest of it are the details of how, but they’re not the point.
The only real change that happens in these things is symbolic, at least in the short-term. Goodell, in a desperate bid to save his job, hired several women who are domestic violence experts and who run organizations that help a lot of victims, to advise the league. That’s about optics, but it’s also about change. (At the very least, these rooms shouldn’t be full of nothing but men when the conversations happen.) Replacing Goodell is also about optics, but it also means change — at the very least, his eventual replacement will know that there are consequences to getting all of this so very wrong. As scapegoats go, a very rich, powerful, connected man whose life has consisted of nothing but unsuffered consequences is a pretty satisfying one.
Rice and Peterson and Hardy and McDonald need to go, too, but the problem is systemic, and the people who represent and enforce those systems are the ones who need to be replaced in order for the game to be watchable again without that twinge of shame.