A Possible Shift in the National Football League's Domestic Violence Problem

by Ashley Rockwell, doctoral student, Department of Sociology, Georgia State University
NCFR Report
Content Area
Families and Individuals in Societal Contexts

The National Football League (NFL) has a long-standing domestic violence problem. The high-profile incidents of family violence in 2014 exemplify this problem, but the response and action by the NFL, the media, the public, and advertisers to these events and family violence in general could represent a shift within the NFL and U.S. culture.

The first incident in 2014 began when a video of Baltimore Raven Ray Rice was released in February. Surveillance footage showed Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée out of an elevator. After being indicted for third-degree assault a month later, no action had been taken by the NFL. It wasn't until 5 months after the video's release that Rice was suspended for two games—half the length of the average suspension for the use of performance enhancing and illicit drugs. A month later, the NFL revised its conduct policy to have a minimum six-game suspension for a player's first domestic violence offence. Just 11 days after this announcement, a second video from inside the elevator was released showing Rice punching his fiancée in the face. Rice was subsequently suspended indefinitely. By December, Rice had appealed his suspension through arbitration and won, making him eligible to return to the NFL, but he remains unsigned to a team.

Another high-profile case took place in September 2014, when Minnesota Viking Adrian Peterson was indicted for reckless or negligent injury to his 4-year-old son, allegedly using a switch to discipline the child, cutting and bruising much of his son's body. Within the 5 days following his indictment, Peterson was deactivated from the Viking's roster, reactivated, and then put on the commissioner's exempt list, barring him from all team activities. Once his requests to be reinstated were denied, the NFL suspended Peterson for the remainder of the season. After Peterson's appeal of his suspension failed, the NFL Players Association filed a federal lawsuit against the suspension, and the judge ruled Peterson should be reinstated. A month and half later, it was announced that Peterson would return to the Vikings.

Twenty years before these incidents, O.J. Simpson went on trial for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman. That trial is often considered one of the first times news networks began to share information and statistics about the prevalence of domestic violence. During the Simpsons' marriage there had been at least eight incidents of domestic violence reported to the police. The unprecedented widespread media coverage of the trial put domestic violence in the spotlight. Some individuals, like The New York Times's Jane Gross in 1994 and Charlotte Alter's 20-year retrospective of the trial in TIME, regard the coverage of the trial and the efforts made by organizations against domestic violence to be the reason for a shift in how our society views domestic violence: from a family or personal matter to a crime where the fault lies with the perpetrator. In 1994, the Violence Against Women Act was passed, and by 1996 Congress had passed a law preventing domestic violence perpetrators from purchasing guns.

Between 2000 and 2014 there were at least 91 domestic violence arrests of NFL players, nearly enough to fill two teams' game-day rosters. Using the USA Today NFL Arrests Database, Benjamin Morris of FiveThirtyEight found that domestic violence makes up 21% of violent crimes nationally but 48% of violent crimes for NFL players. It is common for domestic violence to go unreported to the police, and not all of the incidents that are reported result in an arrest. In addition, NFL players' unique positions as beloved athletes could lead to fewer reports of domestic violence and less frequent action taken by the police.

Theories of why NFL players commit acts of violence have been attributed to the culture of the NFL, which includes the idolization of athletes and rewarding violent acts on the field that would be illegal off the field. Furthermore, masculinity has been socially constructed in a way that normalizes violence for men while devaluing qualities and actions associated with femininity.

Another possible contribution to domestic violence committed by NFL players is chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease. Numerous posthumous examinations have confirmed chronic traumatic encephalopathy in deceased NFL players with violent pasts, including Jovan Belcher, who shot and killed his girlfriend and himself, as well as Paul Oliver, Junior Seau, and Dave Duerson, all of whom had a history of domestic violence before their suicides.

The initial lack of punishment and then minor punishment of Ray Rice upset many fans and ignited public conversations about domestic violence. Sports news networks started inviting and featuring more women on their programs as they discussed family violence. The Peterson case created a dialogue about the differences between appropriate punishments and child abuse. In contrast to the family violence issues the NFL dealt with in the 1990s, many of the responses to the Rice and Peterson incidents occurred on social media sites like Twitter. Social media platforms have allowed fans and the public to directly respond to the NFL, sports news networks, teams, and athletes. These conversations may have influenced the NFL's policy changes regarding automatic suspension for family violence and sexual assault.

Beyond policy changes within the NFL, we have also seen NFL sponsors change the tone of their advertisements, most noticeably in the 2015 Super Bowl commercials that followed the incidents with Rice and Peterson. Previously, Super Bowl advertisements were often the bastion of hegemonic masculinity. In 2015, nine of the top 15 most popular Super Bowl advertisements (ranked by viewers in USA Today's 27th Annual Super Bowl Ad Meter) had themes of family, caring, and equality, with multiple commercials showcasing nurturing fathers. The NFL also partnered with the organization NO MORE to air public service announcements about domestic violence.

The response of the NFL and its sponsors to incidents of family violence is important because of the NFL's large platform, which reaches a diverse fan base, cutting across age, race, and gender. Also, TV programs usually have audiences that hold similar political views, but the 2014 Experian Marketing Services' Simmons National Consumer Study showed that that political divide closes when it comes to Monday Night Football games. Professional football teams can bring people together and unite a community. What happens in professional sports both on and off the field can influence people's everyday conversations, spreading the discussion about and awareness of domestic violence.

Brant Webb's 2012 analysis of the NFL's history of slow or nonexistent reactions to domestic violence suggests the league's limited action could be a result of fears of lost profits for suspending star players. Now we are seeing the NFL focus on boosting profits by cultivating and increasing their fan base of women, who currently make up 45% of their total fan base. It appears that the reactions and punishments are coming much more quickly as the NFL increases its efforts to appeal to women. The 2015 domestic violence arrests of NFL players Ray McDonald and Rodney Austin resulted in the players being immediately released from their teams and, in the case of Josh McNary's arrest, put on the commissioner's exempt list. Social media venues that give football fans a voice to express their intolerance for domestic violence and the NFL's focus on women provide reasons to be optimistic that the league is beginning to listen and take action.

Selected references

Alter, C. (2014, June 12). How the OJ Simpson case helped fight domestic violence. TIME. Retrieved from http://time.com/2864428/kardashian-oj-simpson-domestic-violence/

Gross, J. (1994, July 4). Simpson case galvanizes U.S. about domestic violence. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1994/07/04/us/simpson-case-galvanizes-us-about-do...

Janusz, S. (2012). The NFL's strict enforcement of its personal conduct policy for crimes against women: A useful tool for combating violence or an attempt to punish morality? Seton Hall Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law, 22, 93€“128.

Jefferson, A. L. (1997). NFL and domestic violence: The Commissioner's power to punish domestic abusers. Seton Hall Journal of Sport Law, 7, 353.

Kozol, W. (1995). Fracturing domesticity: Media, Nationalism, and the question of feminist influence. Signs, 20, 646€“667.

Morris, B. (2014, July 31). The rate of domestic violence arrests among NFL players. Retrieved from http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/the-rate-of-domestic-violence-arrests...

Moser, C. A. (2004). Penalties, fouls, and errors: Professional athletes and violence against women. Sports Lawyers Journal, 11, 69€“88.

Webb, B. (2012). Unsportsmanlike conduct: Curbing the trend of domestic violence in the National Football League and Major League Baseball. American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law, 20, 741€“762.

Welch, M. (1997). Violence against women by professional football players a gender analysis of hypermasculinity, positional status, narcissism, and entitlement. Journal of Sport & Social Issues, 21, 392€“411. http://doi.org/10.1177/019372397021004006

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