Only A Game?: The NFL Outside The Stadium

At this point, it seems the National Football League produces more outrage than it does actual football. Since the lackluster televised beatdown that was this year’s Super Bowl, the NFL has churned out a steady stream of controversy, scandal, and general bad news.

This summer alone, football fans and strangers to the game alike have seen these names in the headlines:

Ray McDonald (#91), San Francisco 49ers

McDonald was arrested and is currently being investigated for hitting his pregnant fiancée. The 49ers continue to field McDonald, even though the head coach, Jim Harbaugh, publicly claimed he would not tolerate abusers.

Ray Rice (#27), Baltimore Ravens

Rice was caught on a casino security camera dragging his unconscious fiancée, Janay Palmer, out of an elevator. The NFL “investigated” Rice for five months before suspending him for only two games—less than the minimum punishment for marijuana use. After a cringe-worthy and offensive PR campaign by the Ravens, TMZ released a second video of the incident, showing Rice knocking Palmer unconscious inside the aforementioned elevator. This footage prompted the Ravens to release the running back and resulted an indefinite league suspension for Rice.

Greg Hardy (#76), Carolina Panthers

Hardy was arrested this summer and recently convicted of assault and threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend, Nicole Holder. Of note: Holder said that Hardy lifted her by the neck, threw her onto a couch covered in assault rifles and shotguns, and repeatedly said he would kill her. The Panthers only recently suspended him after the public outcry stirred by the Rice scandal reached a boiling point.

Adrian Peterson (#28), Minnesota Vikings

Peterson was recently arrested for whipping his four-year-old son with a switch, leaving the child’s legs and backside bruised and bloody. The Vikings initially held him out of one game before allowing him to return to the club. Public outrage led to Peterson’s indefinite suspension from the team.

The Adrian Peterson scandal and suspension transpired just a few days before the Vikings were set to play the New England Patriots—the team I’ve always rooted for. As a result, instead of having to account for the best running attack in the league, the Patriots defense was suddenly facing Matt Asiata, a backup thrust into a role for which he was not adequately prepared. Asiata finished with 13 rushes for 36 yards, an average of just 2.8 yards per carry. The Patriots won in a blowout.

It was completely unsatisfying, and more than a little sickening, to watch the game, knowing that the Patriots victory came in part because Peterson had been caught abusing his son. Peterson has been placed on the “Commissioner’s Exempt List,” a special designation by the NFL that basically amounts to paid leave for the player. Greg Hardy is also on that list, several months after his initial arrest.

In the words of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, TMZ’s release of the video of Ray Rice “changed everything.” The Associated Press, however, confirmed that the NFL had acquired both videos of Rice during its investigation, leading to an awful series of conclusions: that despite watching Rice punch his fiancée in the face, Goodell decided the incident was a less serious offense than smoking a joint in the offseason; that the Ravens have almost certainly seen the video, and yet they not only wanted to keep Rice on the team but also publicly defended him; that both the NFL and the Ravens tried to hide the video, praying the incident would fade into the background once the season started; and that only after massive public outcry did the team and the league finally punish Rice for his actions.

Seemingly aware for the first time that abuse is a terrible thing, the NFL will likely identify a long-term punishment for these players, hopefully one more appropriate than Rice’s initial two-game suspension. Peterson, Hardy, and McDonald could be cut from their teams. And Goodell—he of the inappropriate suspensions, flustered press conferences, false contrition, probable cover-up, and general awfulness—might even be fired.

That’s what I hope will happen, at least. What I hope doesn’t happen is the usual fadeout into normality. For the past few years now, though, that’s what has happened—there’s a cycle to it. We watch in the fall and winter—boy, do we watch. Since the Harris Group started surveying Americans in 1985, professional football has been the most popular sport in America, grossing billions of dollars and topping its own TV ratings year after year. However, once the season ends, there is a long summer of scandal: performance-enhancing drugs, episodes of violence, hypocritical suspensions, concussion research cover-ups, and more. As soon as September rolls around, though, we flock right back to football. The pattern seems as invariable as the seasons themselves.

This cycle does not exist without reason. People love football—I count myself among the hoards of devoted fans. There’s no other sport that is so balletically gorgeous when seen in motion and so strategically rigorous when studied on paper. There’s no other sport that features 350-pound bearmen on the same field as 5’6”, 175-pound waterbugs. There’s no other sport that so effectively marries constant entertainment with the potential for big, show-stopping plays. And while not every football fan would list quite the same reasons why he or she is a fan, that variety is a virtue in and of itself.

Yet despite this beauty, there is also no sport so thoroughly steeped in violence. Every play of every football game involves a great deal of dueling aggression. Football patois borrows extensively from war strategies: attacking in formation, pushing deep into enemy territory, winning in the trenches. Listen to the language of the announcers, the demands of fans calling in to sports talk shows, or even just the sound of the crowds after a big hit; to divorce football from violence is to create another sport entirely.

But somehow we forget that this violence also happens off the field. What if fans remembered exactly why #27 on the Baltimore Ravens, #76 on the Carolina Panthers, and #28 on the Minnesota Vikings are not playing? Hell, think further back. Remember Aaron Hernandez, of the New England Patriots? He was indicted for first-degree murder.

I’ve heard sports commentators mention “the Aaron Hernandez situation” way too many times, as if Hernandez got really sick and that’s why he’s no longer playing. I don’t want to be watching a football game in December and hear an announcer obliquely mention the “Ray Rice situation.” At the very least, I don’t want to accept his domestic violence as a part of the game.

Ray Rice’s situation was the worst and most twisted NFL scandal this year, but also the easiest to understand: the NFL and the Ravens messed up. For me, there was never any doubt, even from the original video, what Rice did to his fiancée. And yet, I’m worried we might, once again, forget.

As the season goes on, this column will be me just trying to keep track of the game—on and off the field. I’ll hopefully get to talk to people who are smarter than I am about these kinds of issues. If you have questions or comments, email them to me and I’ll try to answer them. I might even get to talk about actual football, instead of its toxic, dramatic byproducts. I would enjoy that. Welcome back to football season, everyone.

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