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.
Was his suspension too lenient? Of course it was. That truth becomes especially apparent when placing Rice, and his offense and punishment, in context with other offenses and punishment, which this chart does.
The reason the NFL's work around domestic violence seems ineffectual is twofold. By the time these players reach the NFL, their views about how to treat women -- as well as their understanding of how to display their own anger -- are often already solidified. Education needs to start in middle school and high school, which is something the NFL recognizes but is just now beginning to address with its "Prep" programs aimed at high school and college student-athletes.
"The real problem is that these conversations about domestic violence are happening too late," says Wade Davis, the executive director of the You Can Play Project, who works closely with the NFL on issues of issues of conflict regarding cultural views of masculinity. "We need to be teaching kids that it's not okay to hit a woman, or another man -- that it's not OK to use violence as a natural response to anything. These conversations need to happen when they're younger."
One place these conversations could be happening, but almost never are, is on college campuses, within athletic departments. As Todd Crosset -- an associate professor at UMass who researches gender issues in sport -- points out, the reaction to most domestic violence offenders in the NCAA is to kick them off the team and off the campus. Little value is placed on counseling and rehabilitation; more on protecting the image of the program.
The NFL has little control over changing the culture of college football, which is a runaway beast of its own. But perhaps part of the solution should be engagement at the grassroot level, shaping thinking before it's set into behavior patterns. As solutions go, that's a tricky one, slippery and hard to effectively implement. Which is why the NFL could make an even greater impact by leading the conversation from the top, from its perch as the most influential sports league in America.
To this point, the NFL has been embarrassingly lukewarm on publicly attacking the issue of domestic violence. An issue it doesn't seem wishy-washy on? Combating breast cancer. The apparent reason for that choice: Everyone agrees breast cancer is awful, so it's safe, big business-approved. But that logic seems to imply that domestic violence doesn't fall into the same "safe" category, that combating domestic violence is, in some way, controversial.
But is it? Or rather -- why is it seen this way?
"The NFL has embraced the pink ribbon effort against cancer, which is one of the easiest community relations efforts to get behind," Crosset says. "Has the league chosen anything that's somewhat challenging -- as an organization? I don't think they really have. If you look at their charity programs, most are self-serving: introducing kids to football, building football fields. Of course, whether domestic violence is something they should take on, depends how good a job they can do. It's a difficult topic for an organization like the NFL to be involved with because it's not framed in a happy, let's-make-the-world-a-better-place way. There isn't a framing of it yet -- and there might never be -- that it's this happy, feel-good thing."
McPherson offers another reason the NFL shies away from the issue of domestic violence. "When you say you're fighting breast cancer, it's cancer that is the problem. When you're combating domestic violence, often men are the perpetrators; men are the problem. And the NFL can't do anything in a small way. So if they went big with domestic violence, they would find themselves at the forefront of the national conversation on the issue. It would scrutinize their fans, the language of their game, and they would have to be called to task for the sexism and misogyny that fuels the game."
The bottom line is that the NFL will likely only go all-in against domestic violence if it becomes something that fans demand; if, for example, on the first Sunday of the season at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, the place was empty. (It won't be, of course.) "Things will change when fans say, 'You're expecting me to come to the game to watch Ray Rice play? That guy?' What are you asking me to do -- as a fan?" McPherson said. "At some point, if the fans get to that point, that's when things will change."
Part of this, too, might be a chicken-and-the-egg problem. If the NFL took a front-facing, very public stand against domestic violence, might that make the waters less muddied? Might it help frame the issue in a more clear-cut way?
Because for Davis and many others, the issue is not at all cloudy.
"There needs to be severe and dire consequences to curb these types of actions in the future," Davis said.
The fact that the NFL still sees this issue as controversial only fuels the belief that it is. And as long as the league continues to only pay it lip service -- working only behind closed doors, handing down soft sentences for offenders -- domestic violence will continue to seem like a tricky social issue.
When in reality, it's pretty simple.