This afternoon, Roger Goodell fielded questions for the first time about Ray Rice's two-game suspension. His responses were weak and bureaucratic, revolving around the idea of making sure punishments were similar over the years. "We have to remain consistent," he said. "We can't just make up the discipline. It has been consistent with other cases, and it was in this matter."
Yesterday afternoon, Rice spoke publicly for the first time since the February altercation with his then-fiancée at an Atlantic City hotel. The Baltimore Ravens running back, who this past Thursday was slapped (on the wrist) with a two-game suspension by Goodell, told the media that he intends to become "an ambassador" against domestic violence.
He didn't outline what that work would look like, but if Rice follows through, it would certainly bring needed awareness to the issue of domestic violence. And actually, that's the kind of public-facing work the NFL should be doing already. And it's exactly why Goodell missed a big opportunity Friday.
According to those who have seen the NFL's programs firsthand, the league is already doing solid work around the issue of domestic violence. Thing is, not many people know about it. It's not something the league publicizes, and it's certainly not a cause the league champions publicly -- if you consider encouraging men not to hit women (or, for that matter, other men) a "cause," as opposed to just a basic human standard.
Why is that, exactly? If it's such good, smart work, why keep it hidden behind closed doors? Why share it with reporters in hushed tones, from anonymous sources? Why not have the commissioner stand front and center today and announce that domestic violence is a priority cause for the NFL? Only Goodell -- and the NFL owners -- really know why the league puts such an emphasis on pink-washing PR efforts around breast cancer, then relegates domestic violence to under-the-radar status. But let's come back to that later.
Each year at the league's rookie symposium, there are panel discussions and breakout groups around the issue of domestic violence, during which the league tries to educate incoming players about respect, both for themselves and for women. This kind of work is certainly worthwhile, but it's also probably mostly ineffective, the equivalent of trying to shape clay after it's hardened.
Also, there is the issue of balance. For their entire careers, football players have received validation for their strength and toughness, their masculinity. A single hour-and-a-half session is a drop in the bucket compared to a lifetime of reinforcement about what it means to be a man, and how a man treats a woman (or another man). "The ironic thing about sports is, we practice, over and over, to make good decisions in the heat of the moment," says former football star Don McPherson, who now works as an educator on issues of masculinity. "But when it comes to relationships and how we respond in the heat of the moment -- nothing. One 90-minute session ... that's it? And then they're done."
And so far, it does not seem these sessions have done much to change the landscape when it comes to domestic violence. Of course, the most recent example is the case involving Rice.