New Orleans I hate to write about contemporary sports, because for readers and listeners around the world it seems so stereotypically, how can I say this, American. We’re seen as sports obsessed, because, well, many of us are sports obsessed. And, if there’s one sport that has taken pride of place above all others, it is football, and even in the land of the South Eastern Conference, the SEC of Louisiana State, Arkansas, Alabama, and others who are the big dogs of collegiate football, it’s the NFL, the National Football League, that rules all others, including our beloved New Orleans Saints.
We’re in a critical time for professional sports as they become richer and richer and dominate more and more of our attention span and popular culture. They are having to catch up with the rest of the country and the culture, and get a grip on the dark side of sports, athletes, and locker room culture, including racism, homophobia, sexism, and misogyny. The National Basketball Association, the NBA, had to confront a front page crisis around one of its owners getting caught spewing directly racist comments, leading to a quick sale of the Los Angeles Clippers. Another owner from the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks is suddenly confessing to a similar crime but doing so in such a disingenuous way that it looks like he’s looking to make a buck, rather than make amends.
And, then there is the NFL. The rich as Croesus NFL, which is somehow a nonprofit, tax exempt organization under the US tax code, run largely by billionaires who own each one of the city franchises is confronting a scandal splitting its fan base, which is now increasingly women, by the ham handed and primitive way it has dealt with domestic violence. The NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, after months of dillydallying around, recently admitted he didn’t “get it right” when he gave star Baltimore Ravens running back, Ray Rice, a two game suspension for being filmed going in an elevator and then coming out dragging his fiancée, now wife, unconscious after he had cold cocked her. Goodell unilaterally changed the policy in the future to a first offense 6 game suspension and a second offense year suspension without a guarantee of return.
Now more video has come out from inside the elevator allowing millions to see Rice deliver the knockout punch, and his team the Ravens within hours cancelled his contract and then the NFL suspended him indefinitely. And, you know what, some anti-domestic abuse groups applauded this, but no one is buying it as anything but more after the fact NFL cover up, rather than leadership on the issue.
Was the punch any harder just because there was a video of it? Did the NFL, the Commissioner, the owners, or the Ravens, somehow think Rice was dragging his fiancée out of the elevator unconscious because she had slipped? This seems nothing more than public relations hypocrisy.
Look, let’s be clear. I fail to believe that there are very many men in America who were not raised by their mothers – and their fathers – with the simple dictum: boys don’t ever hit girls! That’s the way I was raised, and it was the message in every locker room when I played. It was what I repeated to my son from birth. It’s the mantra of our lives as men in living with mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, partners, and lovers. And, we repeat it over and over, because anger and rage are seething beneath the surface for men everywhere, and many slip and make mistakes, which is why there must be clear and immediate consequences that reinforce the mantra and the universal, cultural consensus within the violent American society that there are absolute limits, where the stronger simply can never be allowed to prey on the weaker, and men and boys can simply never be allowed to hit women and girls. And, never has to mean never.
As Rap Brown famously observed, “violence is as American as apple pie.” Football is a violent sport. It hurts players. I loved football, and I loved playing it, and being clipped in the 5th game of my senior year in high school landed me a 4-F exemption after four draft board physicals back in the day without any regrets for a single game I played.
The NFL is the epitome of this violent sport, but if the NFL can’t absolutely and completely control and contain the violence of its players on and off the field, then it’s time to shut it down, and if they don’t know that boys simply can never hit girls, then they obviously have not only lost control completely, but they have also lost any moral compass that will allow them to be counted on to do the right thing.
The NFL has to learn that this is not play. These are the rules of the real world.