Violence and the National Football League

by Jacki Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Texas Tech University
NCFR Report
Content Area
Families and Individuals in Societal Contexts

The American Professional Football Association was created in 1920 and was renamed the National Football League (NFL) in 1922. Over the past 90 years, the NFL has become the singularly most important U.S. football organization and a significant part of U.S. culture. Approximately 17 million fans attend regular season games, and it is estimated that more than 100 million people watch the Super Bowl (the annual championship game). Given that the U.S. population is approximately 318 million, this viewership represents a substantial degree of engagement. Beyond U.S. football itself, the NFL has a broad-based presence via processes such as corporate sponsorships/advertisements and public appearances. Given this presence, there have been ongoing discussions about the NFL's influence on cultural values/behaviors in social processes such as family functioning and domestic violence.

Compared to some other sports (e.g., baseball), U.S. football is considered more violent. The conflictual nature of teams on the field can encourage aggressive and combative behavior. Success (e.g., winning games) can rely on overcoming the psychological and physical resistance of others. Some teams have even engaged in a "bounty" program, in which they gave financial incentives for causing serious injuries to players on opposing teams (e.g., Barry & Bachove, 2012). Given this intense aggression, there have been concerns about whether (a) players can compartmentalize such aggression (i.e., keeping it only on the field, with opponents of equal strength) and/or (b) fans/viewers experience social learning effects whereby they copy the aggressive behaviors of players.

Over the years, there has been some discussion that viewing aggressive sporting events might have a cathartic effect. Because it is not appropriate for individuals to engage in violent behaviors in their own lives, perhaps viewership serves as a means to vent aggressive energy and reduce stress. If this process occurs, then individuals should feel less hostile/aggressive after watching games. This premise would also be consistent with the concept of vicarious justice (e.g., feeling relief when seeing that others who have behaved badly/unfairly receive just punishment). However, research since the 1970s has not generally supported a catharsis effect. To the contrary, research has revealed that individuals who watch competitions (including football) felt more hostile after the games. To the extent that some argue that watching football might reduce hostility among family members (and thus reduce domestic violence risk/incidents), there does not appear to be substantial psychological research to support this argument.

When players engage in domestic violence, there can be genuine concerns for both their family members and the social impact message (e.g., regarding the acceptability or consequences of harm to intimate others). The degrees of concern and impact have varied considerably over the years. In prior decades, there was a general attitude in U.S. society that domestic violence was a private matter in which outsiders should not interfere. Family members (including victims/survivors of abuse) were largely left to their own resources. From this perspective, the NFL was simply the players' employer and an outsider in family matters. Thus, some might have held the viewpoint that the NFL had no more right or responsibility to address domestic violence than any other employer.

A second issue has been the context in which the violent incidents have occurred. There have often been considerations about the role of alcohol/substance use, as well as the location, frequency, duration, and intensity of incidents. There have also been questions about the victims/survivors' degree of accountability (e.g., could they have prevented the violence from starting, or escape after violence began)? Prior research has shown that there is some merit in distinguishing between situational couple violence and the more extreme intimate terrorism (e.g., Johnson & Leone, 2005). However, there has also been some criticism that an emphasis on contextual issues inappropriately (a) places the burden of violence on victims rather than abusers and (b) fails to consider the factors that make it difficult (or dangerous) for victims/survivors to leave relationships with players.

When the NFL has responded to domestic violence acts by players, the response has been primarily financial. Players have been given fines or excluded from certain games. These limitations are temporary, and no further action might be taken. If players engage in repeated violent acts, then they might receive repeated fines. The NFL has sometimes suggested that domestic violence is a law enforcement/public safety issue, so any additional sanctions/interventions might be best determined by the judicial system. One could argue that the NFL is deferring to the judicial system's greater expertise. Alternatively, one could argue that the NFL's limited reaction is a tacit mollification or a dismissiveness of the impact of violence on families.

It is also possible that the NFL has been engaged in relational patterns with players that parallel abuser–victim dynamics. Similar to Walker's (1977) three-stage cycle of violence, it is conceivable that the NFL experiences a honeymoon phase after violent episodes (in which players make apologies and promise that violence won't happen again). The NFL might want to believe the promises (for humanitarian and/or financial reasons) and work to keep players on the teams. Similarly, the NFL might engage in processes similar to the stay–leave paradoxes experienced by individuals in abusive relationships (e.g., Choice & Lamke, 1997).

The response to players' domestic violence is part of the NFL's broader social impact. When the NFL has made what are perceived to be disproportionally light responses (via public comment or player sanctions) there concern has been expressed that an opportunity to positively influence societal attitudes has been squandered. More important, there is concern the responses can be interpreted as validating domestic violence as tolerable or acceptable behavior. Validation might not be intent of the responses, but it might be the effect.

Over the years, there have been several proposals that NFL commissioners can and/or should proactively respond to domestic violence (e.g., Jefferson, 1997). In 2014, it was reported that the commissioner distributed (to team presidents and executives) a document that summarized the NFL's domestic violence prevention/intervention efforts. The efforts included actions such as (a) meeting with law enforcement/military representatives about personnel conduct issues and family support services, (b) broadcasting a public service announcement television commercial that was part of the larger "No More" campaign, and (c) giving financial support to organizations that provide resources to victims/survivors (e.g., the National Domestic Violence Hotline). In reference to domestic violence, Curnow (1997) proposed that there are opportunistic (open-window) phases during which victims/survivors are most amenable to listening to alternative viewpoints, receiving assistance and/or changing their life conditions to the best of their abilities. It is possible that the NFL's current efforts might be similar to the open-window process.

Selected References

Barry, J. & Bachove, E. (2012). NFL bounty programs: Who pays? Defense Counsel Journal, 79, 360–363.

Choice, P., & Lamke, L. (1997). A conceptual approach to understanding abused women's stay/leave decisions. Journal of Family Issues, 18, 290–314.

Curnow, S. (1997). The open window phase: Helpseeking and reality behaviors by battered women. Applied Nursing Research, 10, 128–136.

Jefferson, A. (1997). The NFL and domestic violence: The Commissioner's power to punish domestic abusers. Seton Hall Journal of Sport Law, 7, 353–390.

Johnson, M., & Leone, J. (2005). The differential effects of intimate terrorism and situational couple violence: Findings from the National Violence Against Women Survey. Journal of Family Issues, 26, 322–349.

Walker, L. (1977). Battered women and learned helplessness. Victimology, 2, 525–534.

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