By JACOB GLICK
Just as Fantasy Football hysteria has hypnotized a good percentage of my friends (I don’t think I’m ready for the level of emotional commitment required to join their league), the far less amusing realities of the National Football League have not yet abandoned our unusually cluttered newsbriefs. It began, of course, with the mishandling of the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice, when video surfaced showing him assaulting his then-fiancé. But the public relations fiasco has continued nearly unabated in the weeks since, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has proven himself woefully unequal to the task of cleaning up the biggest business in American sports. While Goodell made cringe-worthy apologies for interviewing Janay Rice alongside her abuser, the dominoes of scandal continued to fall: Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy and Bill Simmons’ silenced dissent. Even so, the business of the NFL chugs onward, with all its cheerfully machismo bombast and Americana-laced fanfare. The money still rolls in, and my friends are still transfixed on their fantasy rosters. “Don’t blame the NFL,” is the common refrain I’ve heard, as articulated by Jake Forken ’16 in his recent column. But don’t we have to?
The crux of Forken’s well-written column was that it is the judicial system — which allowed Ray Rice to conclude his domestic abuse case without serious legal consequence — should be the rightful subject of our societal ire, and not the belatedly well-meaning NFL. I could not disagree more. Our courthouses, especially those in densely populated urban areas, have been stretched nearly to the point of breaking after years of underfunding and overuse. This is to say nothing of our jails, which — despite departing Attorney General Eric Holder’s successes in the realm of sentencing reform — remain one of the most daunting challenges of 21st century America. I spent the summer interning with the Queens County Public Defenders, and saw firsthand the utter impossibility of prosecuting every first-time domestic assailant. There simply are not enough judges, prosecutors or public defenders. So while judicial systems around the country require a major infusion of resources (alongside a healthy dose of restructured priorities, wherein petty pot dealers are deemed a lesser threat than abusive boyfriends), we cannot pretend that Ray Rice is our problem because our overburdened courts did not serve him justice. If that were the case, millions would attend daily rallies for domestic abuse victims. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Ray Rice matters not just because of what he did, but because of who he is.
The NFL is not only a giant in American sports; it is an economic juggernaut, a media empire and a cultural icon. Thus, just as no one would dare say Major League Baseball was blameless throughout its decades of racial segregation, the NFL’s bungled response to these instances of domestic abuse cannot be dismissed as part and parcel of a flawed judicial system. Ray Rice’s criminal record — as well as Adrian Peterson’s and Greg Hardy’s — should be a triumph or travesty attributable solely to the courts that tried them. But their place within the NFL has nothing to do with those courts, and everything to do with the organization that is, in so many ways, the beating heart of American entertainment. Yes, the NFL “eventually” got it right with Ray Rice, and the Minnesota Vikings scrambled to suspend Adrian Peterson after his paltry, one-game timeout provoked outrage — but that is not enough.
At a time when the NFL commanded more of the national spotlight than usual, it failed to take a morally unequivocal stance on perhaps the most morally unequivocal issue with which it could be faced: domestic violence. Goodell did not run to a podium as soon as he first saw that infamous TMZ video — whenever he saw it — and announce that no players accused of domestic assault would be allowed on a football field until they had been cleared of charges. He should have. As athletic celebrities, NFL players are at the center of our pantheon of heroes; their jerseys dot school hallways, their weekly conquests are trumpeted through fraternity houses and dormitories across the country. The NFL thus has a societal responsibility to cultivate players that are paragons of civic virtue, or as near to it as is realistically possible. This cannot be achieved by dealing with these shameful, chauvinistic outbursts on a timid, case-by-case basis. Goodell and his owners cannot rely on the justice system, which is already run ragged by the myriad crimes of the general populace, to keep the NFL worthy of its place in American life.
The damage control of Goodell and his cronies is reactive and profit-driven, as they have been spooked by the specter of sponsorship withdrawal. There was no whiff of courage in Goodell’s press conference, and even less so in those of the Panthers’, Vikings’ and 49ers’ owners. Fans should not allow the NFL to discipline its employees as if it were any other company, unversed in the intricacies of law and removed from the political realities of justice. How much cognitive dissonance is required for ESPN to silence rebukes of Roger Goodell, while its other commentators continue to parrot statistics and predictions that are, in and of themselves, meaningless? Yet today’s front page of ESPN.com can hardly be bothered to take a break from its blind worship of athletic entertainment. Roger Goodell — and his enablers in the NFL and ESPN — need to remember that the timeless preoccupation with sports has never been an end in and of itself, but rather a means of weaving society together in an instinctual celebration of human strength and fortitude. That is why the NFL ought to be scrutinized, and if it continues to fail in fulfilling its noble mission, it will have only itself to blame.