Why Does the NFL Have a Domestic Violence Problem? Look in the Mirror
Co-authored with Sam Gill September 2014
The weeks long controversy surrounding former Ravens running back Ray Rice has reached new lows. Initially rapped on the wrist with a two-game suspension for attacking his then-fiancée, the National Football League has now placed Rice on a lifetime ban,based on a direct video of the assault. Sports commentators and pundits alike are taking the NFL to task for not being zealous enough to obtain this new video in the first place.
But the attention being paid to this particular series of events misses the bigger, more worrying picture: This is only the most recent, explosive example of a broader and more systemic problem in the NFL – one the league has yet to discuss, much less address.
Recent analysis conducted by FiveThirtyEight.com is stark. Comparing NFL arrest data to national crime statistics, we see that while overall arrest rates for NFL players are well below the country overall (just 13% of the national average), the domestic violence arrest rate shows an outlier spike (55.4% of the national average). It’s by far the NFL’s worst performance relative to the rest of the country.
Taking into account income effects, the data grow more disturbing. While wealthier households typically have a lower rate of domestic violence, NFL players are an exception. They are more likely to be assaulting women than their high-earning peers, and women affiliated with NFL players are more likely to be assaulted than other women. This is the very definition of a systemic problem.
When Rice’s crime is contextualized statistically, the real question for the NFL – and our society – becomes clear. It is not whether the league has adequate protocols to collect and review evidence when players violate conduct policies, but whether the very structure of the NFL, or any environment essentially bereft of women, tacitly encourages the perpetuation of domestic violence and other gendered crimes.
Start with management. It’s surprisingly difficult to find a public listing of NFL executives, but the latest public tax filing for the league (which, gallingly, is a tax-exempt association) shows that all of the top executives are men. Twenty-five of the NFL’s 32 teams are owned exclusively by men, and one of the seven that isn’t is owned collectively by public shareholders (Green Bay).
The sports media that covers the NFL is also composed largely of men. Women in sports programming are too often shunted into sideline reporting roles, a trend especially pronounced in the NFL. No broadcast network has a female booth reporter or a female co-host for Sunday NFL coverage.
This is no trivial matter. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the founders of modern democratic thought, argued that society depends on people being able to take each other’s points of view, to step out of their shoes and into another’s. Centuries later, we know we can’t really rely on individuals to have that empathic ability on their own. What we need, instead, is to bring lots of different perspectives together, in our society’s institutions, so we can engage, face-to-face, with how others think and feel.
The NFL is largely bereft of any women in its leadership ranks. There is no countervailing, enriching perspective on gender permeating NFL decision-making – or pre-, in-, and post-game banter for that matter. At best, there are men armed with good intentions, but who are simply unable to fully appreciate the perspective of another group – in this case, women.
This is why the NFL’s response to Ray Rice has been a cascading series of missteps. And it’s at least a contributor to the continuing problem of domestic violence among NFL players.
Systemic problems require systemic solutions. The NFL can continue to tinker with its punishments for domestic violence, but if we want more empathy and, more importantly, more empathic action anywhere in our society, we need to do more than rebuke it’s opposite. Only a concerted effort to introduce diversity and inclusion into the league will help.
A good start would be to open an NFL office of diversity tasked with conducting an independent assessment of the league’s structure, composition, and policies, followed by recommendations for how the NFL can cultivate a more diverse workforce. The office should have a wide grant of independence to conduct its investigations and propose policies that are then tested over time to gauge their impact.
Changing player culture is a more substantial, long-term challenge, but the good news is that there are many worthy organizations around the country that could begin conducting regular trainings to counteract the insidious effects of an all-male culture.
Domestic violence is not just a systemic problem in the NFL – it’s an entrenched epidemic the world over. Sports are at their best when they actually provide a forum for us to begin to recognize and surmount our human frailties. Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics. Jackie Robinson’s 1947 debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The 1996 South African world cup rugby champions.
When it comes to violence against women, the NFL is far behind a mainstream culture that itself still has a long distance to travel. It would help all of us if the league moved to the front of the pack.