Finally, the NFL got the message about domestic violence after getting slammed about Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice’s two-game suspension. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has now instituted a six-game suspension for players involved with domestic violence and a life ban for a second offense. San Francisco 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald might be the first player subjected to the new sanctions; he was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence days after Goodell announced his new policy.
The stricter sanctions are in response to Rice, who presumably knocked out his then-girlfriend, Janay Palmer, in an Atlantic City casino elevator. Video captured the aftermath, with Rice dragging a limp Palmer onto the floor of the casino. Despite the shocking visual, the NFL suspended Rice for two games after meeting with Rice, Palmer, who is now his wife, and representatives from the Ravens.
It was a first-time offense for Rice, who has a history of community volunteer work. Nonetheless the action by the NFL, prompted three U.S. Senators to write letters to Commissioner Roger Goodell, imploring him for a tougher sanctions against Rice. Additionally, UltraViolet, an organization of 550,000 men and women that fights sexism, wrote a letter urging Goodell to follow through on the new suspension structure.
For his part, Rice accepted a diversion program in lieu of being tried for third-degree assault. He also issued a heart-felt public apology.
Nevertheless, domestic violence among NFL players has remained an issue for a while. According to Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight web site, while players are arrested less often than their non-NFL counterparts aged 25 to 29, domestic abuse accounts for almost half of all violent crime arrests for NFL players.
Given those statistics, and the fact that women are a huge and growing part of the NFL demographic, why was the league initially defensive about its reaction to Rice’s paltry two-game suspension? And why did it take pressure from the public, Congress and non-profits before the league established a policy on domestic violence?
Part of the answer lies in the NFL’s DNA, and in the DNA of professional American sports in general. The NFL and other leagues were popularized partially as a backlash against the growing power of women in the early 20th century. Sports leagues were fashioned to create a sphere of male dominance in an age when male power was challenged.
For example, it’s no coincidence that the formation of the NFL and the passage of the 19th Amendment, assuring women’s suffrage, occurred in the same year – 1920. Football was created partially as a way to toughen up affluent boys against what some deemed as the feminization of the upper class male.
Also during the decades before 1920, President Theodore Roosevelt became a huge proponent of the football. “I believe in rough games and in rough, manly sports. I do not feel any particular sympathy for the person who gets battered about a good deal so long as it is not fatal,” Roosevelt said.
College football at the turn of the century was often fatal, and, in fact, Roosevelt helped save it, by urging rule changes. Yet Roosevelt made sure the game remained dangerous even after the rule changes, which prompted Harvard President Charles Eliot to flirt with banning the annual game with Yale. Roosevelt urged more changes, but still wanted to retain some brutality.
He didn’t want the game to be played “on too ladylike a basis” as he said.
At the same time, sports leagues and youth programs were partially created to emphasize physical male superiority that often precluded female participation. For example, the YMCA’s Luther Gulick claimed in 1906 to have academic proof that rigorous activities were harmful to the female mind and body.
As a result, sports leagues are conditioned not to consider women in the course of doing business.
This ingrained history might explain why former and current cheerleaders are suing three NFL teams, the Oakland Raiders, Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals, for being grossly underpaid.
Minimizing domestic violence through light sentences for offenders and allegedly paying cheerleaders less than minimum wage, fails to make economic sense for today’s NFL. According to NFL officials, women account for 45 percent of the fan base. That might be the reason the league revised its domestic violence policy. Hopefully, it will also provide a strong incentive for teams to settle their suits with underpaid cheerleaders.
The NFL’s institutional history of preserving patriarchy can cause willful ignorance and likely led to the league’s tone-deaf response to Rice’s two-game suspension. But with millions of females turning into fans, it’s an ignorance the NFL and other sports leagues can no longer afford. And that’s why policies are changing.