The NFL has been rocked by the recent public outcry against what appears to be a rampant rise in domestic violence cases. The issue came to the forefront public consciousness when Baltimore Ravens running back, Ray Rice, was indicted on charges of aggravated assault against his then-fiancé and now wife, Janay Palmer. Suspended for two games in July, the public outcry against the NFL was at an all-time high. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, in an effort to soothe the public, admitted his mistake to the NFL owners and changed the policy for domestic violence cases, making the penalty more stringent. But on September 8, 2014, video evidence of Mr. Rice knocking Ms. Palmer unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator was released by TMZ, in addition to the video of Mr. Rice dragging Ms. Palmer from the elevator, which had been released in February. Mr. Rice was released by the Ravens and suspended indefinitely by the NFL, but the damage was already done. Many in the public decried the NFL and the Ravens’ excuses, arguing that both parties must have had access to the video. ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” went a step further, reporting that according to multiple sources, the Ravens had seen the full video and successfully lobbied Mr. Goodell to issue a reduced sentence. Furthermore, reports by both Sports Illustrated and ESPN, among others, stated that NFL Security Director Jeffrey Miller was sent the entire video by law enforcement, further damaging the NFL’s credibility in the public eye. Many have called on Mr. Goodell and top Ravens leadership to resign, due to the apparent corruption in this case. But this case is not a one-off issue for the NFL. Domestic violence cases have long been a thorny issue for the NFL, and one that the public is only now focusing on.
Ray Rice is not the only player facing the music. There have been multiple other high profile cases, such as Carolina Panthers Pro Bowl defensive lineman, Greg Hardy, San Francisco 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald, and Minnesota Vikings’ running back Adrian Peterson, among others. These cases spurred national debate. Some players, such as in the case of Mr. Hardy this past July, were convicted of domestic violence charges. Mr. Hardy’s case was the grimmest, with testimony from his ex-girlfriend highlighting the severity of his offenses. In the trial, the accused claimed that Hardy grabbed her around the neck and said he was going to kill her: she claims that she feared so much for her life that she told him, “Just do it. Kill me.” Mr. McDonald’s incident also gained headlines; he was arrested for domestic abuse on August 31, 2014 when police showed up at his house in the early morning, finding his pregnant fiancé with bruises covering her neck and arms. Mr. McDonald proclaims his innocence and hasn’t had a trial yet. Lastly, Mr. Peterson was arrested and indicted for reckless and negligent injury to a child. Peterson beat his 4 year old son with what he called a “switch,” severely bruising and cutting the child all over his body.
It was not simply the acts of domestic violence that caused such outrage, but also the lack of response from the NFL. Mr. Hardy, even after his conviction, was not immediately suspended. He was only suspended indefinitely after Mr. Rice’s video leaked to the world, meaning that Mr. Hardy was able to train with the team in the preseason and play in its first game. Furthermore, the Panthers, not the NFL itself, suspended Mr. Hardy. Mr. Peterson was suspended immediately by the Vikings in Week 2. However, the Vikings reinstated him for week 3, and only placed him on the Commissioner’s exempt list after public outrage surged and public sponsors began to pull away from their sponsorship of the Vikings. As for Mr. McDonald, he remains an active member of the San Francisco 49ers, participating in all of its games (as of publication). Finally, Mr. Hardy and Mr. Peterson were placed by their teams onto the Commissioner’s Exempt List, meaning that they will still be paid their salary in full, despite remaining indefinitely suspended.
This is not the first time that the NFL has failed in its handling of domestic violence. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight Blog reported on the NFL’s handling of domestic violence since 2002. Of the fifteen cases found by FiveThirtyEight that were punished under the NFL’s now defunct domestic violence guidelines, the average suspension lasted only one and a half games.
The question now is whether the recent actions of a few affect how fans view the NFL. TV ratings have
shown that they have not. Bloomberg reported on September 22 that through the first few weeks of the season viewership had not been affected by the NFL’s handling of the recent domestic abuse cases. Sports Illustrated reported that nearly twenty one million viewers tuned in for the Thursday night game on September 11th between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, only days after the Rice videos leaked to the public. On September 14nd, 22.2 million viewers tuned into the Chicago Bears and San Francisco 49ers, making the game the highest rated broadcast of the week, as reported by CNN. While the American public’s outcry against domestic abuse is genuine, it has simply not stopped tuning into the game.
Fan enthusiasm for the game remains at extremely high levels. According to Grantland’s article, “Together We Make Football,” sixty percent of Americans describe themselves as fans of the NFL. They do not seem to mind that the players they love on the field are not the strongest of role models off of it. In a recent Sports Illustrated poll, forty-six percent of NFL fans actually found players to be poor role models. In addition, over fifty percent of fans found that the recent events of domestic violence had worsened their opinion of the NFL. Yet, for all of the outcry and disapproval with the recent handling of these scandals, nothing has changed. Viewership is still at an all-time high. And in the past few weeks, the discussion about domestic violence has subsided. Fans have a short attention span, and protests can only last for so long. The calls for Mr. Goodell’s head have disappeared, and soon the NFL will return to its bubble, one in which the NFL shield comes before all else. The NFL has a real opportunity to lead social change. It has has the ability to address the situation now, before another crisis emerges. It must not fail.