Deflategate v. Domestic Violence: The NFL Fumbles (Again!)

DeflategateOn Tuesday, in the wake of National Football League mega scandal Deflategate, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey mused, “I sure wish that the NFL would spend about a tenth of the time that it’s spending on this on issues of domestic violence and sexual assault.”

She has a point. On the one hand, deflating a few footballs earned New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady a four-game suspension and his team $1 million in fines as well as forfeiture for two draft picks. On the other hand, the NFL’s highest profile domestic violence offender, Ray Rice, received only a two-game suspension initially then was later suspended indefinitely but reinstated shortly after that.

To be sure, the NFL is adding some new policies to their “personal conduct” playbook, but by calling a public relations blitz for every offense both on and off the field, the organization not only fails to recognize how one differs from another, but also neglects opportunities to address each more effectively.

Even to the concussed, it’s easy to understand that the NFL needs to shape up, so the Ms. Blog picked up the ball and passed it off to The Nation‘s sports editor Dave Zirin to give us his thoughts on the hot air around the NFL’s current crisis, the need for meaningful reform within the organization and what women football fans can do to change the game.

Why is Deflategate such a big deal? How is it linked to the NFL’s domestic violence crisis?

Well, the story [of Deflategate] in and of itself is catnip for a media that views the NFL as a 365-day-a-year product. It drives clicks, it drives views and it drives conversation because it involves one of the most polarizing teams in recent history [the New England Patriots] and one of the most polarizing players [Tom Brady]. I’m not surprised at all about the incredible amount of energy being put around this story, but what I would like is if more people in the media saw the connection between the harshness of the punishment [for Deflategate] and the way that the NFL is trying to correct its historic and horrific problems in dealing with domestic violence.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell ignored domestic violence for years. [Now] he wants players to know that any refusal to cooperate on any issue will result in a massive fine. This [particular case] was about Deflategate. But it was also about Goodell signaling that he wants access to the personal effects and private lives of players when conducting investigations, or there will be a price to pay. The league has no real subpoena authority. All it has is the power to coerce through financial and public pressure. Whether anyone should trust Goodell with that kind of authority is another question. Based upon his conduct and judgment, I believe that answer should be no.

What do the punishments issued to the New England Patriots—including the $1,000,000 fine—mean for future offenders?

According to the collective bargaining agreement, the NFL is only allowed to fine up to $500,000. They just fined [the Patriots] a million dollars: $500,000 for deflating the footballs and $500,000 because they felt like Tom Brady refused to cooperate with the investigation. And that’s the thing about the NFL—they don’t have subpoena powers. They’re not a legal organization. They want to send a message to teams that when it comes to dealing with all issues, particularly [those] that revolve around “personal conduct”… that non-cooperation will be seen as an offense unto itself. This is the first time the NFL has really done that and they’re using the incredible platform and media attention this case has to send that message to every NFL team.

In what ways has the NFL meaningfully addressed domestic violence in the wake of the Ray Rice scandal?

The key word is “meaningfully.” Because, yes, a lot of steps have been taken. Yes, the NFL has completely overhauled its approach to domestic violence and intimate partner violence since the release of the Ray Rice video tape and the scandal that … exposed years, if not decades, of cover-ups regarding the intimate partner violence that takes place in the league. All that being said, the NFL, under Roger Goodell in particular, needs to stop taking public credit [and] patting themselves on the back for changing the discussion around domestic violence. He crows like a rooster about how the NFL is now this incredible positive force for good on this issue, which is sort of like Goldman Sachs taking credit for people having a discussion about income inequality and corporate greed.

But on another issue, I fear the NFL suffers from the [philosophy] “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” They’ve gone from ignoring domestic violence to having this approach of “getting tough on domestic violence,” [but] there’s no discussion about where this discussion, I think, always needs to be centered and that’s on the health and well-being of those affected by this violence. And [for me] if that’s not your starting point, you’ve already lost.

What are some moves the NFL can make to tackle domestic violence?

[One thing] they could do … is set up independent networks [for] families so people could call and get help, confidentially if need be. The second thing is actually work to provide counsel for families so, if they have these issues, they can work things out. The third thing they could do is raise awareness directly with families about the toll that head injuries play in [creating] unsafe situations inside the home. Of course you don’t need a blow to the head to be someone who acts out in violence against women, but it certainly doesn’t help. Research shows that the particular bruising that takes place among NFL players, in the interior frontal lobe of the brain, is the part that operates around questions of impulse control. Families should be made aware of what some of the warning signs are of brain injury, so their safety can be assured.

[Additionally] I don’t think that the NFL understands that every intimate partner violence case is different. Sometimes, for example, leaving a situation can be more dangerous [for the victim] than staying. Sometimes women want to stay. The NFL’s savior complex on this issue, [rather than] centering it on the affected and making sure that their self-determination is put in the front, makes this seem much more like an exercise in public relations than something that will actually help.

I’m also concerned about the politics of those being brought in. Are we talking about people who support the idea of hyper crime and punishment and criminalization? Because [if that’s the case], it might act as a disincentive for women to come forward if the only result in coming forward means that their husband or boyfriend will be kicked out of the sport, which then ends the financial windfall that people work for. These players make 90 percent of everything they’ll ever make in their lives from what’s a 3 1/2 year career [on average]. Now, I’m in no way saying there shouldn’t be harsh punishments for people who are abusers, but I’m saying [we] have to figure out a way to set up mechanisms so that the choices of the women [and children] affected are open so they can get help and then they can work with people who can figure out what the best help can be.

What is Roger Goodell’s role in combating domestic violence?

[Roger Goodell is] just a puppet for the NFL owners. He does not act in any way independently of them and so you have these situations where players like Ray McDonald and Greg Hardy are accused and, in Hardy’s case, convicted of domestic violence and they get re-signed [without] hesitation. So, unless NFL teams are buying into a zero-tolerance policy around this issue then any policy that Roger Goodell had is irrelevant.

What can football fans, especially women, do to hit the NFL where it hurts?

The NFL is so heavily dependent on women fans. Unlike other sports like basketball, hockey, baseball even, the NFL doesn’t travel overseas so, its market is really is confined to the United States, so the idea of adding women to the fan base and being a sport that women want to engage with is really a question of the future of the league if [it’s] going to grow. So, women have a tremendous amount of power. One thing that women can do is support organizations that actually pressure the NFL to represent them in ways that are positive. That means raising the issue that cheerleaders are by far the most exploited part of any NFL team [for example]. Cheerleaders have tried to organize themselves and bring lawsuits to make it more fair. Supporting campaigns like that are actually important even if you don’t think cheerleaders should be part of the game at all.

I think the importance of pressing this point—that policy should not be centered on the public relations of the league but on the health and safety of the affected—has to be the overarching message that stands above everything else.

Will the NFL ever move the ball forward in addressing the issue of domestic violence?

I think when [the NFL’s] first concern is public relations, it’s a doomed failure. Intimate partner violence is something that is solved with very grassroots-intensive work with individual families … and a hyper-sensitivity towards everybody involved. If people think PR will do it, that every problem is a nail so let me bring out a big ol’ hammer, then it’s not going to work.

Photo courtesy of Parker Anderson licensed under Creative Commons 2.0


Kitty Lindsay is a Ms. blogger and works at the Feminist Majority Foundation. She is also creator and host of Feminist Crush, a weekly podcast featuring conversations with feminist artists and activists. Follow her on Twitter!