Why the NFL Got Their Domestic Violence Policy Wrong

Note: I originally wrote this a couple years ago. I forgot about it. But I still believe what I’ve written, so I figured I’d post it. 

I live in Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. I follow, though very passively, CFL football. We don’t get the talent, drama, or celebrity personalities of the NFL. Not even slightly. Average game attendance or television viewership doesn’t even begin to approach the NFL’s. And numbers in Canada for those that tune into the Super Bowl always dwarf numbers for our championship, the Grey Cup in comparison. The contrast there says it all: what’s more fascinating, being dazzlingly Super or being a bland combination of black and white?
I haven’t however been at all sheltered from the controversies of a more social dimension that plague the NFL these days. There are all of the issues related to head injuries and lawsuits from retired players, issues of bullying and discrimination around race and sexuality, and of course criminal charges ranging from assault to murder. These are issues that rage publicly apart from football, and also opportunities for the NFL to show public leadership at the places their league and these problems intersect. That’s why I see their new policy around domestic violence as a failure.
I follow these issues with all kinds of interest. It’s intriguing, from an impersonal distance, to see a young millionaire with a past begin to feel power and entitlement go to his head and kill someone as a result, such as the case with Aaron Hernandez. As someone who’s pastored in evangelical contexts of differing varieties, I’ve been carefully tuned in to Chris Kluwe’s selfless activism around marriage equality and the price he’s paid for it. As is often the case with large organizations with shareholders and public responsibility, the NFL has taken cautious approaches to these events to demonstrate appropriate levels of concern and respect for parties involved, while also committed to some form of discipline as necessary. But on the case of domestic violence, they’ve paid the price for being disengaged and soft, and I believe will soon pay the price for being hard-lined and unrelenting.
Their new policy, six game suspension for first offense and lifetime ban for a second, abandons their leadership role in the lives of the young, talented men recruited to play in their unabashedly successful money-making league. And it doesn’t only abandon them to the punishment of their sins, it also abandons their loved ones to a second victimization through the abuse. In this failure, it will either worsen the consequences for those already paying a price or force them into a fearful silence about abuse, a hell of another kind. A dramatically enhanced punishment imposed and enforced by powers from above through a change in regulation will not change behavior positively in those that commit violence. We have thousands of years of religion and law courts than can attest to that.
I have victimized others in my life. And I deserved any punishment received. Through that, those that actually cared for me and those I hurt saw any discipline imposed as means to restore me and the relationship I destroyed. Here, the NFL shows their ongoing interest is in profits by protecting public image rather than advancing the game they trade on by supporting the men they employ to play it.
Because of the NFL’s failure to handle the case with Ray Rice, they were forced to revisit their domestic violence policy in response to criticism rather than authentic concern. Their solution was this hard-lined approach. It might project their image as capable and on top of a sensitive issue, but it will only harm those it purports to protect and further harm those that are punished by it.
Here’s what I mean. Presumably, the first player caught in re-offense will be made an example of and punished by a lifetime ban, no matter the quality and length of his career. No more million dollar paydays, loss of sponsorships, and no hall of fame. But it doesn’t end there. His wife, girlfriend, children (or even boyfriend with the doors opened by Michael Sam, I suppose) will also suffer interminably. The lifestyle they’ve come to know and expect and the benefits of it will be lost to them. However, as a result of their spouse or boyfriend or father being caught, which is entirely different from not offending, they will gain an unending sense of public shame. They will come to be known in their schools, workplaces, and social surroundings as the ones connected to Player X and his sin. And will this new-found notoriety, fear, shame, and frustration actually solve anything related to the issues that birth and enable domestic violence? I can’t believe so.
Not only does this policy fail to address the real systemic and societal issues that are actually at work in domestic violence, perhaps even stronger than the issues of rage and control at work in the offender, it fails to protect and provide for those that, beyond the player’s NFL career, are bound to him forever. In this sense, it re-victimizes the victim and perpetuates the system of white privilege they already benefit from. There will likely always be one more excellent black athlete arising from difficult circumstances eager to take the place of the one just disposed of in disgraceful circumstances. The NFL benefits from this, as evidenced by the predominantly caucasian makeup of their team owners and league executive. And a policy like this one ensures it will continue in their favor as long as they take steps that maintain public image but fail the men they make their very successful living on the backs of.
A holistic approach that is actually concerned with the players, their potential victims, and the issue of domestic violence at large in North American culture would take a redemptive aim. It would re-train offenders not just for their benefit, but for the benefit of those standing by them even in their failures. These are the wives and children who must learn how to process forgiveness because even after Dad is no longer a pro athlete, he’s still Dad. A holistic policy would allow that many of these offenders have likely once been victims in one form or another. It would aim to break destructive patterns and create restorative ones. In so doing, it would also offer hope to the consumers of the game and the never ending proliferation of paraphernalia and products. If the veil of abuse was lifted and the attempts at redemptive strategies were made public, seen through the eyes of humanity rather than the lenses of cell phones and surveillance cameras, perhaps restoration and redemption could become more normal than repeat offense.

Domestic violence can and should end. No more victims, ever. My conviction is that this hard-line policy focused on public image will not achieve that but ironically, will ultimately only serve to perpetuate the number and severity of the victims produced by domestic violence perpetrators. May the NFL take hold of their leadership responsibility in the lives of its players towards redemptive rather than destructive ends. May they fail them no longer and be committed to protecting people rather than profits.

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