Why Won’t Professional Football Stand Up for Women?

The NFL and the media that covers it have a history of prioritizing money and ratings above the safety of the players’ significant others. That needs to stop.

Running back Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens addresses a news conference with his wife, Janay, at the Ravens training center in Owings Mills, Md., on May 23. (Photo: Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Regular TakePart contributor Holly Eagleson writes about social issues, culture, lifestyle, and food for Redbook, Marie Claire, Glamour, and others.

When the news broke in February that Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice was arrested for assaulting his then fiancée, Janay Palmer, the reaction from many NFL observers wasSame song, third verse.” The pro football league has been plagued with violent incidents for decades. This year alone, NFL players Chris Rainey, Robert Sands, and Daryl Washington have been arrested for assault against a romantic partner.

The Rice incident was different, though. Cameras captured the aftermath of the alleged assault, which took place at a casino in Atlantic City, N.J. A video leaked by TMZ showed Rice dragging Palmer’s body by the shoulders out of an elevator where the incident occurred, casually shifting aside her limp legs.

Rice avoided a trial and possible jail time by entering a domestic violence intervention program and counseling. But until last week, the NFL had yet to weigh in. Fans wondered if the organization might bench him for a year—the same suspension that Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon is contesting for allegedly smoking marijuana.

Instead, the NFL delivered a pathetic punt: Rice was suspended for only the first two games of the regular season. The disbelief the decision generated was trumped a few days later when ESPN talking head Stephen A. Smith questioned what responsibility women have for provoking physical attacks. After an outcry from his colleagues, Smith received a weeklong suspension from ESPN, essentially half the punishment of Rice’s suspension.

With all the harping on provocation and Rice’s short benching, the NFL and media whiffed by not acknowledging a larger point. Why is misogyny so pervasive in pro football? What can everyone do to hold players to a truly professional standard?

The NFL may not want to admit it, but many players are set up to fail from the beginning. “A lot of the glue that bonds men in football teams is misogyny,” says Michael Messner, professor of sociology and gender studies at the University of Southern California. From taunts like “You throw like a girl” to San Francisco 49ers player Anthony Dixon calling out the Atlanta “She-Hawks” on Twitter, comparing a player with a woman is a constant epithet used to make men conform to a narrow idea of masculinity. Beginning in the peewee and Pop Warner leagues, “football is all about seeing other people as objects and using your body to defeat them,” says Messner.

Here’s why that matters for women: “If a player is treated like an object, and he sees himself as an object, then everything else around him becomes an object, including women,” says Gamal Abdel-Shehid, an associate professor of kinesiology and health science at York University who studies sports and social inequality. It’s not an excuse for their behavior, but for guys who have risk factors for abuse, such as witnessing violence in their household growing up, it’s an explosive combination.

Complicating the issue is that once guys get to the pro level, there’s a widespread view that romantic conquests are distractions at best and parasitic at worst. “There’s a general view of women at that level as sex toys and as simultaneous gold diggers,” Messner says. “That view contributes that sense that whatever you do to women might be justified or partly their fault.”

It also helps explain why a guy might see his future wife and mother of his child, as Palmer was to Rice, as less than human in the heat of conflict. (For his part, Rice publicly apologized to Palmer today, calling her “an angel” who can “do no wrong” and saying, “My actions were inexcusable.... That’s something I have to live with the rest of my life.”)

It doesn’t help that many fans believe players’ private lives should be just that—private. “I think a lot of fans feel that as long as they’re not messing with the integrity of the game, what players do off the field is their business and should not come under scrutiny,” says Don McPherson, a former NFL quarterback who has spent the last two decades working to prevent violence against women through lectures and workshops on college campuses. “But if we treat drug use or gambling as issues that affect play on the field but not domestic violence, it perpetuates the dangerous idea that women are not as important as dogs or as drugs.”

Before we can expect pros to act like professionals off the field, we have to give them the right equipment to do their job. That begins with teaching respect for women and skills for healthy relationships alongside game strategy. “Men need to be taught that it takes more courage to restrain yourself, even if someone is hitting you,” says Abdel-Shehid.

Ironically, the idea that players must inevitably react to provocation with violence is completely at odds with pro players’ training. “Athletes, more than any other subset of society, are provoked on a daily basis by people smaller than them,” he says. “We’re best known for practicing so that when you’re in the heat of the moment you know how to respond.”

Those like Smith, who would speculate about a woman’s responsibility for being rendered unconscious, could do with a lesson in abuser dynamics. Though Rice and Palmer claim their arguments weren’t physical before the February incident, abuse is rarely a onetime event. It often escalates, with many abusers threatening to kill the victim if she should try to leave, and many making good on that promise. This fear of reprisal might shed light on Palmer’s defense of Rice. Sports Illustrated’s Peter King reported that Palmer pleaded with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to go easy on her now husband, which could account for his short suspension. 

No matter the partner’s view on her relationship, NFL has a responsibility to take a zero-tolerance policy toward domestic violence. Fans can help ensure it’s held accountable. “The NFL won’t change until fans say we’re not showing up,” McPherson says. “They have to say, ‘You’re asking me to compromise my ethical standards of behavior by putting Ray Rice on the field. I’m not going to buy that TV package, because you’re asking me to watch a game played by people who I find morally indefensible.’ ”

If integrity isn’t enough of an enticement, let’s speak to the NFL in a language it can understand: money. More than 100 million people watch the Super Bowl annually, and 46 percent of the audience is female. What would happen if ladies not only stopped buying teams’ pink-washed jerseys but also the beer advertised at a rate of $4 million for a 30-second Super Bowl spot? You’d have a lot of unhappy advertisers who might balk at supporting the big game next year.

The thing is, when the league chooses to act, the NFL can do great things. It’s already raised more than $4.5 million for breast cancer organizations. But absent real punitive action against violent offenders, the messages from the NFL will stay the same. Ladies, we’ll happily support part of you—the breast, naturally—but not the whole woman. Guys, roughing up your girl is no big deal. Just make sure TMZ doesn’t get its hands on the video next time.

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