What We Must Not Forget When the Sunday Night Lights Turn

Ray Rice at a press conference

This week, millions of Americans drafted their fantasy football teams as the heavily anticipated 2014 NFL season kicked off Thursday night.

But amidst the excitement, it's easy for football fans to forget stories from the offseason that may have (briefly) sparked moral or ethical debates with off-the-field implications.

NFL players have long been held up in American society as paragons of traditional masculinity — aggressive, wealthy and dominant, both on and off the field. Last year, the NFL's divisional playoff games averaged 34.3 million viewers. That's a huge audience, and therefore a huge opportunity to highlight and elevate positive male role models.

So far, however, the league seems more concerned with its image, reacting sluggishly when players have displayed a much more toxic kind of masculinity — one that treats women like objects and views bullying as a rite of passage, for example — sending the message that these types of behaviors are part of being a professional football player. If we ignore the greater implications of these scandals, and instead debate whether we should have drafted Ray Rice in the fifth or sixth round of our fantasy drafts, we are missing a crucial opportunity to hold the NFL — and ourselves — to higher standards.

While the season is only a day old, those standards are already being put to the test. San Francisco 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald was arrested Sunday on domestic abuse charges; his 10- month pregnant fiancee reportedly had bruises on her neck and arms. The incident happened just three days after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell released new penalties for players accused of domestic violence. and a memo to teams that said, in part, "Domestic violence and sexual assault are wrong. They are illegal. They are never acceptable and have no place in the NFL under any circumstances." The new penalties include a six-game ban for first-time offenders and a lifetime ban for a second offense, though Goodell has some leeway in deciding the final punishment.  

Image Credit: AP

The new penalties were applauded by some as a positive step in a more responsible domestic violence policy. Goodell and the NFL faced severe scrutiny this offseason when Rice received a two-game suspension for allegedly knocking his fiancee unconscious and then dragging her through their hotel. Compare this with Josh Gordon receiving a one-year suspension for substance abuse (marijuana) and this is the message the league sent under the old policy: "We'll make a show of punishing you if you harm others, but if you do anything to jeopardize your own health (and therefore the team), we'll crack the whip."  

But as the Boston Globe's Ben Violin noted, the new changes come with a "big asterisk." For one thing, "The six games and one-year ban are not set in stone. Goodell said he will take consideration to 'mitigating factors' in each case before deciding on a punishment, like he did in giving only a two-game suspension to Rice for hitting his fiancee (now wife)," Volin wrote. "The six-game threshold is more like a starting point. Goodell still has the unilateral power to give more than six games, or fewer."

Many people are now waiting to see how the NFL applies these new guidelines to McDonald's case. Depending on the outcome, Goodell could send the progressive message that the league is working to position itself as a strong opponent of player domestic abuse.

The true test of progress will be if fans are able to look beyond Rice's impact on our fantasy teams and recognize that 1 in 4 women will be victims of sexual violence in their lifetimes — most likely at the hands of a male intimate partner. Given the NFL's emphasis on "hard knocks" and toughness, it's not necessarily surprising that it would also be a breeding ground for the kind of masculinity that treats women as objects and property.

While Rice attracted media attention because his alleged assault was caught on camera, he was certainly not alone in his abuse. Over the summer, Carolina Panthers defender Greg Hardy was found guilty of assaulting his girlfriend while in possessing of an astonishing number of guns. He has not been suspended while he appeals the verdict. And indeed, Hardy's coach, Ron Rivera, told the press that "Greg's a heck of a young man and we'll go from there." Where's the outrage for Hardy's victim? Does the abuse need to be caught on surveillance footage for people to care?

If Rice did indeed knock his fiancee unconscious and drag her through a hotel, he is not, as his coach later said in an inadvertent echo of the Panthers coach, a "heck of a guy" or a role model — he is at best the product of a sport and society that celebrates violence, and at worst simply a bad person. 

Meanwhile, the NFL has done very little to address another big blight on its reputation recently: last year's bullying scandal involving Miami Dolphins Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. Once the alleged victim (Martin) and perpetrator (Incognito) were removed from the spotlight, the pundits calmed down and forgot about the whole thing. Now Incognito, who was not disciplined by the league, has been cleared to play for the season and several teams have expressed interest. "What can he do for my team?" is the operative question, taking a clear precedent over "What might he do to my team?" and certainly over "What message is this sending to our boys?" 

Goodell said that Incognito "has been very responsive and gone through the program," though Incognito's lawyer, Mark Schamel, told the New York Times that Incognito was not disciplined by the league and was not required to go to anger management treatment, so, unless the NFL provides more details, it looks like "the program" involves doing absolutely nothing and then being considered rehabilitated a few months later. 

Roughly 1 in 3 students will be bullied during the coming school year, increasing the chances that they will face anxiety and depression, decreased academic achievement, and even suicide. Debating the "best fit" for Incognito ignores the implications of his actions and signals that, as usual, strong performance on the field can compensate for contributing to a nationally epidemic issue. 

Professional football players are role models for our boys and their actions off the field often reach the news and thus our homes. The minutiae of what happens to Rice and McDonald and Incognito is important, but perhaps more so are the conversations that they started and which we — as viewers, fans and consumer of the NFL — must continue if we want to see progress in how the world's most lucrative sports association teaches the next generation of fans what it means to be a "real man" in America today.

It would be a shame if once the cameras turn off and the regular season starts, all that talk about accountability gets lost among the bright Sunday night lights.