National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell is under fire for allegedly covering up or inadequately responding to acts of domestic violence committed by the League’s hired hands. The uproar began with his two-game suspension of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for allegedly assaulting his then fiancee, which was deemed a mere slap on the wrist.
Since then, new cases have been cropping up almost daily. Under pressure, Goodell increased suspensions for similar cases to six weeks for a first offense, and indefinite suspension for the second — but with potential reinstatement after a year. Rice was suspended indefinitely. Goodell has also appointed an investigative commission to make recommendations for further policy changes. Progress, no?
Well, no. Rice was videotaped dragging his girl out of a hotel elevator at an Atl¬¬antic City, New Jersey casino, apparently unconscious. That looks more than nasty. But the case is in the courts and Janay Palmer has become Mrs. Rice. I don’t see where this is now the NFL’s business. It’s not there to play Dorm Daddy or enforce a code of moral conduct on private behavior. Whether the Ravens want to trot Rice out on the field is up to them; they were his employer — and have now decided to terminate his contract. If their fans don’t like it, they’ll let them know.
The Philadelphia Eagles had a player awhile back, Michael Vick, who had previously made a hobby of electrocuting dogs. Head Coach at the time Andy Reid had no problem with that. Neither did the Commissioner. The Eagles made Vick $100 million richer, or however much of it he ultimately collected. Of course, dogs don’t root for NFL franchises, as the women who comprise nearly half its fan base do. And therein lies the principle Roger Goodell is so devoted to upholding: it’s money.
Women, whether fans of pro football or not, should not be pleased by the NFL’s sudden attack of chivalry. They should be insulted, because they’re being patronized.
There’s another angle to be considered, too. Ray Rice wasn’t convicted (because he struck a deal), but he is facing a substantial financial and career penalty. The NFL shouldn’t be judging conduct of any kind on rumor or report. It isn’t the law. Whatever penalty Ray may receive in court will discharge his debt to society. Michael Vick did go to jail, though not for as long as a canine court would likely have sentenced him, and resumed his former employment. The NFL didn’t add any further penalties after his suspension and legal time in jail.
Domestic violence is a social problem and often a serious criminal offense. It’s also a slippery concept. I’m not sure how Rice’s purported conduct fits under it. He and his girlfriend weren’t married, so it wouldn’t have been spousal abuse. It’s not clear that they shared a domicile or that the relationship was an exclusive one. We’re looking at a fairly straightforward case of assault in a public place.
Of course, “domestic violence” is a term that pushes buttons and for professional football — a sport that thrives on the appeal of violence to both sexes— to come out four-square against it is a means of assuring female fans that they can vicariously experience it without fearing it will spill inappropriately over the lines of the playing field. That is not an expression of social concern. It’s pandering to protect the box office.
The NFL is also trying to divert attention from a little public relations problem of its own: the mass lawsuit by 4,500 former players over the League’s decades-long cover-up of concussion-related injuries that have led to permanent disability and early death. Recently, it reached a $765 million court-brokered settlement, which does not include the related issue of painkiller abuse by team trainers and doctors. It serves this project very well to change the subject to the question of extramural violence by players themselves.
America is a violent country. Football is a violent sport, best played by athletes whipped into a frenzy that encourages them to risk and inflict injury. They are extravagantly well-paid to develop and exhibit the skills to do so. It’s not always easy to disable those skills in private life, just as it isn’t for war veterans that are trained to respond lethally in combat situations.
This is the price we pay for the wars we want and the sports that entertain us. We license the military to police itself. Athletic associations should enforce the rules that pertain to their sport and leave private conduct to be judged by the parties themselves, or by the laws they may transgress. Hypocrisy adds nothing to social value. It’s only a means to avoid facing truths we prefer to avoid.
Robert Zaller is a professor of history at Drexel University He can be contacted at [email protected].