Mary Sanchez

NFL must play lead role to end the abuse of women

A man should write this column.

Domestic violence is a topic we're all talking about at the moment, but here's the problem. When it comes to the question of what to do about it, the discussion is lame and frustrating. We can create all the shelters and women-be-smart programs we want, but we wouldn't really be addressing the root of the problem: men. We wouldn't be asking the people to step up who could really make a difference but aren't: men.

Instead, here we are, weeks after the release of the Ray/Janay Rice knockout video and the headlines applaud a handful of advertisers for dashing off sternly worded letters to the NFL. Here's how one, from Anheuser-Busch, began: "We are disappointed and increasingly concerned."

The list of finger-wagging sponsors now includes McDonald's, Visa, GM, FedExand Campbell Soup. God bless them all and hooray for public relations.Anheuser-Busch and others probably forced the league's hand in another case, that of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who is accused of child abuse. The Vikings had benched him for a game but announced Monday that he would playSunday. After outcry, the league put him on the "exempt/commissioner's permission list," effectively benching him until his criminal trial is over.

Yes, the greatest running back of his generation is out of football for who knows how long. That's something. But what's unsatisfying about all this "concern" is that it's all about how teams and the league are "handling" the problem. The league's inept disciplining of Rice and the Vikings' inept disciplining of Peterson are still being viewed as scandals, things to distance from. Scandals run their course. Scandals are managed and, if you're lucky, they go away.

Where is the leadership on the actual problem? Where is the recognition that strong men must step up to change the way other men behave?

Eighty-five percent of domestic violence victims in America are women. Overwhelmingly, the aggressors are men. That's where change needs to happen: altering men's behavior and attitudes. That includes, crucially, the behavior and attitudes of men who aren't abusers.

Consider what happens in the locker room. What's said in the company of males, shared from middle school to the NFL, is similar. Some of it is trash talk. A lot of it is outright toxic misogyny. Frankly, I'm tired of being told I need to take self-defense classes to protect myself from men while men smirk or stare into space and don't say a word while their buddies make crude, demeaning comments about women. A real man doesn't stand for that. A real man calls that behavior out. A real man doesn't care what kind of grief he gets in reply.

Women can crank out all the self-help books they wish, organize a calendar full of empowerment conferences, but it's basically clean-up work, intended to uplift women who for whatever reason don't feel they are worthy of a healthy relationship.

Young girls are instilled with a sense of self-worth early in life -- very early, long before they begin to understand themselves in a sexualized way. Some of the most powerful influences on a girl's self-esteem come from her father, who can nurture confidence that will shield her for her entire life. Later in life, she will have better instincts for avoiding men who don't respect her.

Let the NFL take that one on. Create a campaign showing players acting as strong fathers to their young girls. The league could also copy the impressive campaigns being undertaken on many university campuses to counter sexual assault. College men are being trained to intervene, to counter the sexist and sometimes criminal behavior of their peers. The work is supported by research showing that men hold great sway over other men.

Let's use that power. Let's use what we know about domestic violence.

Studies have shown that children who grow up witnessing abuse are more likely to adopt the behavior themselves. To what degree is unknown, but there is evidence that young boys who witness attacks as children are affected even more negatively than young girls -- because it so often becomes learned behavior.

We don't talk enough about these young boys. Many are psychologically trapped. Who are they as an adult? Are they still the little boy who couldn't protect his mother? Or do they identify more with their father -- lacking empathy, feeling entitled to take a whack at a woman whenever they feel threatened or agitated?

Men need to feel it is their place to stop other men from abusing their wives, girlfriends and children. The NFL and the networks that televise its games, those great purveyors of testosterone-fueled aggression and manliness, could lead on this, wrapping their mighty heft around what it really means to be a man. The question is whether they have the courage to do it.

To reach Mary Sanchez, call 816-234-4752 or send email to Twitter: @msanchezcolumn.