Message to the NFL: Leave the violence on the field

The NFL starts taking right steps, but continues to make light of domestic violence


Football is a game of violence. Players’ bodies becomes weapons as they tackle their opponent, grabbing at their limbs, their hair, their facemasks (when they can get away with it), driving into players with their helmets, flinging their bodies into space and hoping they collide with enough force to knock the ball out.

And fans love it.

But NFL players have helmets, shoulder pads, back plates – layers of protective gear surrounding them as they’re slammed to the ground and into each other. When the violence of the game transcends the field, when it’s the wives and girlfriends of these athletes being victimized – these women don’t have helmets or referees to protect them.

The law should protect victims of domestic violence. But the leaders of the NFL – Commissioner Roger Goodell chief among them – should also be protecting women by taking a firm stance against domestic violence. Recent events have forced Goodell to take the first steps in this process: After a videotape of former Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancée, now wife, unconscious, Goodell was forced to acknowledge that the two-game suspension Rice originally received was insufficient.

Violence can easily take main stage in football. When Dez Bryant, suspended in midair, took a hit so hard his whole body rippled, he made headlines. When Antonio Brown went into full Greek Warrior mode and kicked the opposing team’s punter in the face, slow-mo replays swept across the Internet. Moments of extreme violence are as much a highlight of games as the touchdowns and interceptions – they’re celebrated and analyzed and anticipated.

The violence is part of the game, part of the drama, part of the reason many fans watch and many athletes play. But that’s where it should stop.

Goodell’s behavior has been incompetent and inhumane. Despite his claims that he hadn’t seen the video when he first suspended Rice, he still knew the details of the incident. But he allowed Rice to remain on the field, after interviewing Janay Rice with her abuser present, and listened to Ravens coach John Harbaugh when he said that, “It’s no big deal. I stand behind Ray. He’s a heck of a guy.”

And now, it seems that domestic violence is indeed “no big deal” to the NFL, because even as calls for Goodell’s firing and critiques of the organization’s heinous decision-making skills dominate headlines, San Francisco’s Ray McDonald played on Sunday despite facing accusations of domestic violence. McDonald was taken into custody after police responded to a 911 call and noticed bruises on the neck and arms of his pregnant fiancée.

In contrast, the Carolina Panthers realized at the last moment that allowing Greg Hardy, their star defensive end who’s been convicted of domestic violence, to play would envelop them in a public relations nightmare. (Let’s be realistic here – if the Panthers cared about anything beyond their image in the media they wouldn’t have allowed Hardy to play in Week 1 and would have pulled Hardy long before game day morning.)

Hardy was actually convicted of domestic abuse in July, but because his case is still awaiting appeal, the Panthers allowed him to play last week, and clearly struggled with the decision to deactivate him in Week 2. The testimony of his ex-girlfriend, in which she describes Hardy picking her up and throwing her to the ground, pulling her by the hair and choking her after threatening to kill her and break her arms, apparently means little compared to Hardy’s assets as an athlete.

Certainly, players like McDonald deserve a fair trial and should not become victims of false accusations. But allowing them to play on before their innocence or guilt has been determined, and letting Hardy play despite his conviction, devalues the claims of the women involved in these investigations and sends a message to viewers that the NFL, ultimately, doesn’t care if their players are criminals – unless it’s on videotape and sparks public outrage.

Despite the hypocrisy inherent in condoning violence on the field while condemning it everywhere else, it’s a contradiction the NFL must embrace if this sport is going to survive. Go ahead and pay a defensive end $100 million because he’s an absolute monster on the field, who can take quarterbacks down like no one else – but make sure he’s a saint in the real world (the man in question, J.J. Watt, certainly seems to be).

The NFL claims to be taking this issue seriously. The league’s actions completely undermine those statements. The only good that has come from the actions of Ray Rice is the fact that the NFL can no longer ignore this problem. And it’s not limited to a few anecdotal outliers: Domestic violence accounts for 48 percent of all violent crimes among NFL players, compared to 21 percent nationally.

Goodell, we have a problem.

But nobody in his or her right mind should trust him to fix it.