Monday, TMZ posted a video of Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice arguing with his then-fiancee, now-wife Janay Palmer, punching her, knocking her out cold and carelessly dragging her out of an elevator in an Atlantic City casino. This video, from the event that occurred on February 15, has incited powerful reactions throughout the sports world and beyond.
This is the second wave of backlash for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who originally sanctioned Rice with a mere two-game suspension for the assault. The NFL claims that it did not have access to the video leaked this week, insisting that it only reviewed the tape of the fight after Rice began dragging his wife out of the elevator. The timeline of events is questionable, leaving many to doubt the authenticity of the league’s claims. The assumption that the league and Ravens did not see the video prior to the leak is a fabrication at worst and willful ignorance at best. Regardless, the NFL has lost credibility as subsequent actions by both the NFL and the Ravens, including terminating Rice’s contract and suspending him indefinitely, ring hollow as simply too little too late.
The video has sparked a national conversation and raised awareness of the prevalence of domestic violence (or intimate partner violence) in the United States. The issue hits close to home as Louisiana has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the country. Nationally, the statistics are equally sobering; one in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, and every year 3 million children experience domestic violence in their homes. For those who are inclined to put blame on Janay Palmer Rice for sticking with Ray Rice and marrying him after the assault, I strongly encourage you to read this article explaining why victims stay with their abusive partners, as well as this open letter to the Baltimore Ravens written by a victim of domestic abuse. Putting blame on the victims of this type of violence is an irresponsible and dangerous response, as these powerful accounts prove.
Any blame in this situation should be firmly placed on Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens and the NFL. While many others have written about Rice and the Ravens, my attention is focused on the NFL – and not just on its actions during and after the assault that occurred earlier this year. The mishandling of the case has been well documented at this point. Instead, I am interested in the NFL’s hypocrisy when it comes to its female fan base. This incident is just the latest in a long list of actions that have struck me as insincere on the part of the most powerful league in professional sports.
I am a diehard New Orleans Saints fan and have written many articles on this site that underscore my devotion to our local NFL team. I have watched the Saints since I was a toddler, joining my father in the Dome on Sundays to support the black and gold. Over the years, I grew not only to love our team, but the NFL in general. While my gender prevented me from playing football myself, I was an athlete who appreciated the complexity of the sport and the drama that unfolded each Sunday during the fall.
These days, like any other devoted fan, I check ESPN.com and SI.com on a regular basis, flip between Mike & Mike and the Dan Patrick Show on the radio on my way into work, listen to my favorite football podcast (ESPN’s Football Today) and play fantasy football (I’m currently in three leagues, and commissioner of one). However, despite the fact that I am a typical NFL devotee in every other way, I have never been able to separate my gender from my football fandom. I’m not a fan, but a female fan. There is always a distinction, and I am treated differently as a result. I get talked to in a patronizing manner when discussing football with guys who do not know me. I see the look of shock on the faces of male friends or coworkers when I chime into a football discussion with a relevant fact from an article I just read about the subject.
Even the media still draws a clear distinction between the experiences of female versus male fans. A recent article published on Nola.com completely missed this point in its depiction of local female Saints fans who attended training camp this year. While I’m all for highlighting the devotion of the female members of the Who Dat Nation (which is impressive), I was insulted by the lens through which this story was told. Virtually every quote in the article referred to the physical attributes of the players at practice. Terms like “sexy butts” and “pelvic thrusts” were used, as opposed to any half-thought-out description of the fans’ genuine interest in the sport.
I am a fan the NFL says it wants to get. I don’t follow players by the look of their butts and I don’t wear high heels to any football-related event. I don’t toss my long red hair (which I have) to one side to get my jersey autographed (would a story on guys at training camp describe their hair?). It denigrates women to assume that they don’t know as much as men. The glass ceiling of the NFL is the assumption that women go to the game for any other reason than … the game.
Despite the still-ubiquitous attitude that football is a man’s sport, the league has taken steps in recent years to attract more women to the game – from rolling out a new line of female-friendly apparel (instead of those ridiculous pink jerseys) to featuring prominent female characters in television commercials. The reason? The bottom line.
A recent study shows that nearly 45 percent of all NFL fans are women. Additionally, women account for the majority of consumer spending in the US (approximately 70-80 percent). This equates to billions of potential dollars for the NFL; no wonder they are focusing on this lucrative revenue stream. But how sincere is this NFL in all its efforts to woo female football enthusiasts?
One effort that clearly underlines the NFL’s disingenuous attitude towards its growing female fan base is its annual Breast Cancer Awareness tribute. Since 2009 the NFL has gone pink in October in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Pink is featured throughout the game – from player gear to the penalty flags. Yet, despite the prevalence of the color throughout the month, only 8 percent of the money spent on pink gear sold by the NFL actually goes toward the American Cancer Society and cancer research. Additionally, since 2009, the NFL has donated only $4.5 million towards breast cancer causes, even though the league collected revenues of more than $9 billion last year alone. The result is a clear indication that the NFL is a top offender of “pinkwashing,” a term that the Better Business Bureau uses to describe businesses that exploit Breast Cancer Awareness Month to improve their images and, subsequently, their bottom lines.
Ironically, October is also awareness month for The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Despite the fact that domestic violence affects more women than breast cancer, the cause is having trouble keeping up awareness and funding, due in part to pinkwashing by major business leaders like the NFL. Maybe the NFL will take the opportunity to include some purple gear (the color of Domestic Violence Awareness Month) into the mix this October and actually donate a substantial portion of proceeds to this important cause.
Ultimately, it’s amazing to me that a league working to attract female fans has such a high tolerance for the mistreatment of women. The Rice incident is not the first of its kind, as this article points out. Recently, San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald was arrested on a felony domestic violence charge. The commissioner recently changed the NFL policy for domestic abuse offenses; however, the time and reactive nature of the policy ring hollow again. Male or female, this move is once more too little too late.
At the end of the day, I understand that the NFL is a business and an extremely lucrative one at that. Other companies have had major missteps when it comes to their treatment of women. In business school, I studied case history on the fact that Walmart was accused of unfairly promoting men ahead of women. I can boycott a business like Walmart. But my relationship with the NFL is much more complicated. Being a Saints fan is part of my identify, one that I do not want to deny. And it’s hard to ignore the NFL’s hypocrisy when it comes to its female fans.
The league, its teams, and its players simply must do better. It’s not just a business, because it’s not just a game. The NFL should know and do better: Its fans deserve it.