Violence against women is, unfortunately, an evergreen issue for the NFL. That’s what makes the ineptitude of the suits in charge so glaring.
The NFL is, unfortunately, one of our society’s biggest influencers. That’s what makes its mangling and mismanagement of that burden so sad and harmful.
We share some the blame here, too — fans, general public and of course media. We’ve been looking at this all wrong.
A compelling example can be found through the process by which Chiefs star running back Kareem Hunt showed a pattern of violent behavior that the league investigated with all the gusto of a fifth-grader looking for his homework. An investigation that does not include even an interview with the alleged perpetrator, for instance, is a non-effort retroactively labeled as an investigation for PR purposes.
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We are now a full week into the ecosystem that has sadly developed around these things: video spurring action, reaction to said reaction, empty apology that does not address the victim, and lots of analysis on what the league should have done better. But too often that conversation begins in the wrong place.
Because a sport dominated by men sees its role through the prism of punishment. Suspensions are compared across incidents, the measuring stick of whether commissioner Roger Goodell’s brand of “protecting the shield” is tough enough. His make-believe sheriff routine has no time or space to recognize victims.
That is the most obvious and dumbfounding failure in the NFL’s response. There are at least three more inherent, fundamental and overriding problems with the playbook the NFL has built.
First, it furthers the fairytale of the NFL as moral arbiter. The league has been shown to have ignored, suppressed and discredited vital research into brain injuries that could have spared some players and their families catastrophic loss. It has pushed pain pills, pressured players into action when they shouldn’t and treated cheerleaders like sexual objects unworthy of even minimum wage.
All of that was done in the name of profits and optics. This is not an organization from which any of us should be taking moral direction.
Second, the established approach pushes the dangerous lie that the NFL is capable of, or even positioned to, mete fair punishment. In reality, the league’s choice of consequences has more resembled pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. This is not an organization we should trust with justice.
Third, it clouds the failure of law enforcement. Only the NFL’s profile and self-appointed role here could overshadow the mistakes by Cleveland police, who essentially listened to each side and threw their hands in the air in resignation. Police did not even ask the hotel for surveillance footage, and arrested a man who tried to help the woman. Isn’t the failure of the police (who deal with countless cases) more concerning than any failure of a sports league?
The result is as counterproductive as the league deserves: The general public often sees the league as full of outlaws, despite evidence that NFL players are arrested at a lower rate than the general population.
In other words, the league is choosing cheap optics over real help, and failing even by that low and embarrassingly unambitious standard.
The reaction — from the commissioner’s office down to the locker room — is to move on as quickly as possible. Get to the next news cycle by not answering questions, pretending that a vague and unattributed statement made in the name of focusing on football is sufficient.
But what if someone else in the locker room is having similar issues? What if a teammate is struggling with his temper, or alcohol? Millions of Americans are doing the same, so it’s logical to believe the same is true of at least a few players. The league has counseling programs that should be promoted during these times.
Instead, the message of move on, eliminate distractions is a missed opportunity to help prevent the next destructive moment.
The approach has made for a shameful mess, but not for the reasons that are most often stated.
A common theme exists. The NFL is attempting to do more than it is capable, fueled by unrealistic expectations that because it’s good at selling a violent sport it should also be good at suppressing violence off the field.
The league should more honestly define and know its role, with an eye more toward long-term progress and less toward short-term optics.
The league should think more about what is realistic and helpful to the greater cause, with less energy on measuring arbitrary punishments and more on how domestic abuse and violence against women can be more effectively deterred.
Some actual acknowledgment and aid for victims and more open help for potential perpetrators would be a good way to start.