Super Bowl XLIX caps a year when the NFL became a national symbol for domestic violence. This may be the end of the NFL season, but one camera in an elevator opened a national conversation that will at last put the onus squarely on the shoulders of men.
Tech is amplifying the signal and lengthening the duration of that conversation. The inevitable growth of video and social will only serve to bring more of the formerly private transgressions of NFL players into public view. This is a good thing.
Sports has long been a productive channel for male anger and rage, particularly contact sports. And there is a lot of potential anger in need of an outlet. Every year, more than 3 million children witness domestic violence, creating men who are twice as likely to grow up to be batterers and women who are more likely to be in abusive relationships. Doesn’t this make you wonder how many NFL players were domestic violence victims as children?
It makes sense to me. I know the terror that begins when your father enters the house and ends only when he leaves. I know the fear of risking life to call the police, and the outrage in hearing them told that my mother “fell.” I know what it’s like not knowing whether your mother would survive the night, then masquerade the next day at your all-white school as if nothing happened. For me, high school sports were essential outlets for that rage and fury, helping fuel 10 varsity letters in soccer, fencing and lacrosse.
Domestic violence is terrorism in your own house.
If sports are good for angry men (as is the money that goes along with success), then perhaps it should not be surprising that the NFL experiences fewer arrests than the general population—about 87 percent lower overall. Domestic violence is the top arrest category among NFL players, but even that occurs at about 55 percent of the rate of the general population, according to studies by Duke University and data blog FiveThirtyEight. As I know from personal experience, arrests are a small fraction of the magnitude of the problem.
This does not let the NFL off the hook. Experiencing domestic violence is highly correlated with homelessness, depression, cardiac and GI disorders and costs our country over $37 billion annually in law enforcement and other direct costs, according to Safe Horizon. Any domestic violence is too much.
The NFL has a unique opportunity due to its reach and influence. On Sunday, it will almost certainly be the most-watched television show of the year, with over 110 million viewers. It has commissioned and paid for an important 30-second public service advertisement about domestic violence that absolutely floored me. Watch for it in the first quarter. The PSA is a great beginning. With statistics on its side, the NFL can go much further.
The NFL, working together with the players’ union, should create a “DV Zero” platform to eliminate domestic violence within the league, modeled on NYC Mayor DiBlasio’s Vision Zero plan, which seeks to eliminate pedestrian deaths from automobiles.
The growth of mobile, social and video tools enable popular demands for transparency from public icons and leaders, whether elected via the ballot box or the remote control. With smartphone growth doubling over the past three years or so to over 60% adoption today, the NFL would be wise to plan ahead, way ahead. The threat of always-on tech should seal the deal in case the well-being of women and children in the NFL’s “family” is not enough motivation.
On Sunday, our National Football Day, the NFL needs to do a few things: One, they should do a better job of celebrating football players, not only for their athletic accomplishments but for life accomplishments. As noted in this amazing article by Browns wideout Josh Gordon, the NFL is better at fueling an angry mob for minor transgressions—like pot use—than highlighting players’ journeys out of tough experiences.
At the same time, the league should take ownership for its shortcomings and condemn domestic violence, while announcing programs to protect wives/girlfriends and their children by removing the batterer from the home, not vice versa
After that, the NFL can exert the power and influence of its brand and organization. It can work with DV experts to create policies and educational curricula that can be applied from collegiate football to peewee football to flag football. No other group has the power and reach to foster “domestic respect” when it can be most effective, when men are still boys.