The NFL looks beyond its crisis-filled year

January 28, 2015

unnamedIf there’s an elephant in this room, it’s not nearly as big as the football on the corner of East Washington and North Central in Phoenix, Arizona.

Towering above giggling fans on the Monday before Super Bowl XLIX, the temporary monument attracted diehards, locals and people who don’t mind making a week-long vacation out of a four-hour game. It was hard to imagine that they were there to celebrate the pinnacle of a season of controversy. If NFL fandom had a grieving period, it appears to have zoomed past “acceptance” into “enough already.”

The video of Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancee Janay Palmer unconscious in an Atlantic City casino elevator leaked onto the Internet on Sept. 8 through TMZ. The footage was grainy, but the message, women’s advocates said, was clear: the NFL didn’t take domestic violence seriously.

In the months since, the NFL says it’s started to change its culture, its image and how it educates its players. But league representatives and some advocates don’t always agree on what that entails.

 

‘THIS REALLY CAN’T BE A ONE-SHOT DEAL’

At the start of the 2014-2015 season, the league instituted new personal conduct policies. Commissioner Roger Goodell said players involved in “assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault that involve physical force” would be suspended for six games. They would be banished from the NFL for a second infraction, he said.

The new standards go beyond game suspensions, said Anna Isaacson, vice president of social responsibility at the league. The NFL talked with outside experts to create educational programs including “first responder training” for key members of the football clubs. The NFL also offers programs on “what it means to be an active bystander” for all members of the league.

“The education will continue,” Isaacson said. “This really can’t be a one-shot deal. This has to be continuous, it has to be repetitive.”

 

‘THE PROOF WILL BE IN THE PUDDING’

For domestic violence prevention advocates, the season ahead could prove pivotal.

“People are getting hurt because [the NFL’s] policies weren’t effective before,” said Ruth Glenn, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. “I feel encouraged that they now have a policy and a training team and advisors in place […] I think the proof will be in the pudding a year from now.”

Others are less optimistic.

“The hostility that the National Football League has displayed toward women is long and tedious and will continue to be so,” said Stephen Mosher, a professor at Ithaca College and an expert on sports ethics and character development.

A USC poll conducted in mid-2014 showed that public trust in the league eroded long before the start of the season, with 66 percent of respondents saying the league is “partly responsible for the behavior of their players,” according to ESPN.

Rita Smith, senior adviser to the NFL on domestic violence and sexual assault, said she asked the NFL in 1998 to have a different kind of conversation about domestic violence, but they were not ready. Now, after serving as the head of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence for 20 years, Smith helps craft the education programs that the league uses.

She describes the “first step” of her work as creating a baseline definition for players and personnel of what sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse are. “These are not issues that will be easily addressed so it’s going to take some time,” said Smith. “We needed to get our own house in order.”

Tony Porter, the co-founder of domestic violence prevention group A Call to Men and an adviser to the NFL, said the league has “the opportunity to be on the right side of history.”

“We’re at a tipping point here – we can make things happen,” said Porter.

 

‘WATCHING A TRAIN CRASH’

At the beginning of the season, in the wake of the second Rice tape, there was plenty reason to wonder whether the league could retain the loyalty of its fans. That doubt quickly dissipated.

Amid outrage over Goodell’s handling of the Ray Rice case NFL viewership increased, according to a Reuters report. And while pundits, bloggers and columnists decried the league, the NFL’s core stayed put.

“I’m not sure [the NFL] ever lost the trust of their fans because the fans are only interested in the football issues,” Mosher said. “Most people who consume this entertainment don’t even bother to look past what happens on the field. And [they] would much rather talk about a football being overinflated.”

Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, finds the policy changes at the NFL lacking in care for victims and too broadly painted. As Goodell stays in charge, she said, the league is “irredeemable.”

“People are always saying ‘Ha! The viewership is up!’ I think the increase in viewership is a short-run phenomenon of watching a train crash,” O’Neill said. “I think it’ll be like cataclysmic change always happens: slowly at first and then all at once. I think that’s the road Roger Goodell has put football on.”

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