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Only A Game?: Ending Football’s Cycle of Violence

News & Features | December 16, 2014

Let’s bring it all back to Ray Rice. At the beginning of the semester, when talking about Ray Rice and other players involved in abuse scandals, I predicted that the NFL would try to reform itself. This has proven true, to a certain extent; the NFL has made changes to its drug and abuse policies. However, a Senate panel recently claimed that the NFL’s new abuse policy is still inadequate, a stance I agree with.

I also predicted that Goodell, then accused of being a liar and now confirmed as one, might be fired. This unfortunately has not come to pass. Finally, I predicted that Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, and Ray McDonald, the other players involved in abuse scandals this year, could be cut from their teams. Peterson has been suspended indefinitely (which looks to be a de facto season-long suspension) and is set to launch an appeal. Hardy remains on the Commissioner’s Exempt List and is extremely unlikely to play this season, with a trial date set in 2015. McDonald was cleared of abuse charges and continues to play for the 49ers.

Beyond predictions, though, I wrote about how I didn’t want to see us—the public and the media—stop talking about abuse and fall back into the comfortable rhythm of football season. We haven’t stopped talking—although I withhold a “thankfully” because, to an extent, the constant talk about abuse has been attributable to constant discoveries of new abuse. This year, the focus has shifted from Rice, to Hardy, to Peterson, and now, back to Rice.

Since the initial flurry of outrage and media coverage of his domestic abuse scandal, Rice has been tied up in court, appealing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s decision to change Rice’s punishment from an initial two game suspension to an indefinite one. The appeal hinged on the argument that Goodell had made his initial ruling with all relevant evidence at hand, and therefore his alteration of Rice’s punishment violated the contract between NFL players and management.

Just recently, Rice won the appeal, demonstrating that he had not misled Goodell and the NFL in the investigation leading up to his initial suspension. Basically, he proved that Goodell lied when the ruling was changed. Remember, Goodell said publically that the elevator security camera video showing Rice knock out his fiancée had “changed everything,” and that the NFL had officially argued that Rice misled Goodell to believe that the incident was less severe than the video showed.

Effectively, the abuser has now become a victim at the hands of a corporate monolith that is caught in a PR hurricane and desperately scrambling to escape unharmed. We should make no mistake here: the NFL, which made an official claim that Rice is a perjurer and a liar, slandered him. This will never change the fact that Rice committed abuse, and it will not undo the damage he caused his fiancée (who has decided to stay with him). However, this long, strange epilogue to the scandal does illuminate one key issue here: the NFL as an entity, as a system, is just as bad as the worst individuals it governs.

I’ve written about this before. The very sport of football is built around on-the-field violence, and the NFL’s commercialization of that violence provides further incentives for players. Go watch an old NFL Films production on YouTube sometime: just search “big hits” or something along those lines, and you’ll find hours of immaculately produced montages of horrifically violent football plays.

Although the league has moved away from this in recent years—coincidentally, around the same time that the general public discovered that playing football is one of the easiest and most spectacular ways to kill your brain—the underlying incentives for violence still exist, and the league has been terrible about addressing them.

Take, for example, the most recent Super Bowl champions, the Seattle Seahawks. They won their championship on the backs of a crushing, grinding defense led by a squadron of defensive backs who call themselves “The Legion of Boom.” Although the players in this group are athletic marvels, certainly capable of finesse play, they aren’t called the Legion of Boom because they tackle gently. And the NFL encourages this explicitly violent characterization with official highlight videos, branded T-shirts, posters, and more. The NFL can’t honestly say it highly values player health and safety and then go and make money hand over fist on these kinds of products.

At the same time, though, the NFL is really only responding to its own set of incentives, set by us, the football-consuming public. We’re the ones paying the NFL for “Legion of Boom” shirts and watching highlight videos and going to games and demanding our cable companies bundle the NFL Network with our subscription. I have to admit that I watched a Super Bowl highlight video and got a little fired up. I openly admit that I get really, really (perhaps unhealthily) excited when the Patriots are winning. It just so happens that—just like many other Americans—I love football, a sport that is violent and beautiful, strategic and simple, but for me, now involves creeping guilt.

I honestly don’t know what to do about this. Football has a violence problem on many levels, and there isn’t anything the football-consuming public can do beyond continuing to talk about it, and demanding improvement. I’m weak, and don’t want to take the nuclear option and stop watching football altogether—honestly, between similar problems with violence and the vastly unfair system of amateurism, college football has its fair share of problems too.

That’s not to say that football is doomed, or that positive change is impossible. As much as the NFL likes to pretend to be some sort of untouchable cultural giant, it’s not. Public and media scrutiny can make a difference—we’ve seen it happen this year in the changes to the drug policy and the new focus on abuse. So what I’m going to do, personally, is try to remain informed about what’s going on in the league, use whatever means I can to further the discussion of the league’s problems, and pressure them to change—even though I know that change will still be slow in coming. If you love football, but want the NFL to change, it’s a pretty easy thing for you to do, too.

A quick afterword: I have infinite admiration for athletes in the NFL, NBA, and other leagues using their exposure and influence to stand up for their beliefs and demand justice for Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and the countless other victims of systematic racism and violence. There are so many things bigger than sports, and this is one of them.

Header image by Keith Allison/Flickr via Creative Commons.