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The NFL and the normalization of violence against women

Alex Kerner

October 4, 2014

When Kansas City Chief’s Linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and then himself in 2012, sports media woke up to the issue of domestic violence and athletes. The world of professional sports in general, and American football in particular, was exposing the fruit of hyper-masculine attitudes toward women and partners that are so prevalent in sports culture.
Despite the particular brutal way Belcher’s actions and own death went down, officials at the National Football League did nothing of any consequence, ignoring the fact that violence against women was something the league had to take seriously.
Ray Rice and Roger Goodel
Things came to head over the last off season when a video leaked of Baltimore Raven star running back Ray Rice violently dragging his unconscious then-fiancé, Janay Palmer, out of an elevator, presumably knocked out as a result of a physical altercation with Rice. There was immediate shock and outrage, but the spokespersons of male football culture also came to his defence, with his team and coach giving glowing reviews about what a good man Rice was.
There was enough public pressure on the league to do something about Rice, but when league Commissioner Roger Goodel handed out a meager two game suspension the shouts of outrage were staggering. This is a league that regularly punishes players four games or more for marijuana smoking. This is a league that gave Cleveland Browns’ wide receiver Josh Gordon a full season suspension for a DUI. This is a league that appeared interested in growing its female fan base and the slap on the wrist punishment to Rice was seen as doing the exact opposite. Goodel quickly called a news conference and admitted error, saying that the league had to take domestic violence seriously.
Then the league's hypocrisy was fully exposed. TMZ, the gossip website, leaked the full video of what happened between Rice and Palmer, a gruesome clip of Rice punching Palmer unconscious. The Ravens quickly cut Rice and the league suspended him indefinitely. People quickly started asking how TMZ managed to get access to the video, while the NFL and the Ravens could not. Then reports began trickling in that the NFL had been given a copy of the video and the Ravens possibly had one too. Rice’s spokespersons let it be known that he had told Goodell exactly what had happened and that the video should not have been a shock. Quickly grew the chorus that Goodell resign for his handling of the situation, having been either negligent or having intentionally hidden evidence, not wanting to hurt the profit margins of the league and one of its teams by exposing this event. 
Things only got worse when photos appeared of Minnesota Vikings star running back and former league Most Valuable Player, Adrian Peterson’s son with physical marks from abuse allegedly at the hands of the football player. The Vikings chose not to play Peterson in the week where the photos became public but tried to bring him back quickly for the week after. Only after key sponsors threatened to abandon the team did the Vikings put him on indefinite leave.
The narrative of events, as outrageous as it sounds, is not surprising. Football culture, from the pro ranks to the high school teams, is also one filled with incidents of misogyny and rape. Only two years ago, the dramatic events at Steubenville High School, where football team members were tried and convicted of raping a sixteen year old, shocked the world. Last year, Florida State University star Quarterback Jameis Winstan marched his way to a national championship and Heisman trophy under the shadow of allegations of a sexual assault allegation. 
Despite the obvious that there was a problem, professional sports are a multi-billion dollar industry and teams depend on their star athletes bringing in the fans and the money. Even with the NFL actively trying to win over female fans, they would rather sweep adversary under the carpet and hoped they goes away. Usually these huge leagues get away with this flippant approach, but the arrogance of the likes of Roger Goodell, who think they are not accountable to fans and society, finally has gotten them in hot water. Mimicking a Nixonian self-inflicted demise, every day we hear new stories about Goodell and NFL executives knowing about the existence of the video of Rice and Palmer, with police officials stating that they gave the video to the league offices and a voice recording of someone from the league affirming they received it.  Yet Goodell continues to lie to the media claiming ignorance. Everyone who knows the iron grip Goodell has over the league offices doubts his feigned ignorance of not having seen or known about the video.
This is another example of how the profit frenzy that makes up professional sports destroys the fun of watching the game. The league has been fine with the ultra masculinized attitudes that make their players more aggressive on the playing field and help their teams be successful. But if those attitudes help normalize violence against women and children the league tries to deny any form of accountability. All they care about are the wins and the enormous amounts of money they get from television deals and ticket sales.
But fans do not have to accept this. Fans already put enormous pressure on league sponsors to make the Vikings deal with the charges against Peterson. Fans can put similar pressure to end the reign of the villainous Roger Goodell. They can put pressure on their teams that the status quo is not enough and that when the violence of the game carries over to the personal lives of players and turns partners and children into victims serious questioning needs to be done about the nature of the game itself. At the end of the day, mobilization from fans is the only thing that will ever move the entrenched sense of entitlement of those who run professional sports.

Check out radical sports journalist Dave Zirin’s compelling accounts of what happened:

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