The NFL suspended Ray Rice indefinitely this week. But the NFL's problem is bigger than just one player. Photo source.
How can sports fans change a soulless behemoth of a money-making machine like the NFL?
On Monday, following TMZ’s release of the video showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancé, now-wife, Janay Rice, and knocking her unconscious, Erin Gloria Ryan penned a piece for Jezebel whose title is to the point, “If You Care About Women and Still Support the NFL, You Are a Hypocrite.” She writes:
“No matter how fun it is, how thrilling, if you're a person who claims to care about women, watching the NFL is morally indefensible until something changes… If all you're doing in response to the NFL's tone deaf attitude toward violence against women is complain about it without changing your behavior as a consumer, then your complaints only serve to paint yourself as a person who appears to care.”
While I like what Gloria Ryan is arguing in the abstract, how many people would it take changing their behavior to have any kind of impact? The NFL is a monopoly when it comes to watching football (other than college football and you don’t want to get me started on that) and people in the US really love to watch football. According to ProFootballTalk, last year, 34 of America’s 35 most-watched fall TV shows were NFL games. That breaks down to an average of 17.6 million viewers watching each game—205 million Americans watched at least one NFL game. That dwarfs the kind of ratings that any other type of TV programming gets.
The financial windfall for the league is gigantic. The NFL, according to Forbes, is the most valuable sports league in the world. Individual teams are worth an average of $1.43 billion. And the NFL’s worth will only go up. From Forbes:
The NFL is by far the most popular sport on television and media right fees underpin the league’s sweeping increase in team values. Thanks to new broadcasting deals with NBC, ESPN, CBS and Fox that begin with the 2014 season, evenly-split revenue will increase to $250 million over the next four years. In addition, the league’s one-year Thursday Night Football deal with CBS will add $275 million in revenue to the league this season. And the NFL’s deal with DirecTV–which recently began to offer streaming options–is expected to increase substantially from its current $1 billion a year fee to the league given the importance of the NFL to the value of the satellite television provider.
Plus, all of this is subsidized by the US tax payer: the NFL is a nonprofit organization and has been since the 1960s.
This kind of fandom means that the NFL serves as both a social currency and common language in our culture. Football is that safe Thanksgiving conversation when the entire family is gathered together in a tense-but-pretending-its-not-tense moment. If you run out of chit-chat about the weather, the odds are pretty high that if you bring up the NFL, the person you’re talking with will have some knowledge of it, too. The NFL is a social and financial juggernaut.
For individuals, taking a moral stand against consuming the NFL would be good on an individual level. But this is a systemic problem. The Ray Rice case—both the fact that he assaulted his partner and and the fact that the commissioner of the league initially only disciplined him with a two-game suspension—is but one of many domestic violence cases in the NFL. This past weekend, convicted domestic abuser Greg Hardy was on the field with the Carolina Panthers (he’s awaiting another trail) and accused domestic abuser Ray MacDonald suited up for the San Francisco 49ers.
Outside then of simply not consuming the NFL, what can we do to change it?
First, we know the NFL responds to criticism. We saw that play out with the Ray Rice case. Rice was only suspended two games by the commissioner, Roger Goodell. The response to this, especially in comparison to a full-season suspension for a player who had tested positive for marijuana (it was a repeat offense) was utter disbelief and anger, not just from the public or fans, but also from sports media. The result? Goodell apologized for his light punishment of Rice and released a new domestic violence and sexual assault policy for the NFL.
Sports media, its own kind of juggernaut in sheer size, can drive the kind of sustained criticism that leagues feel they must respond to. However, sports media is a whole bunch of men—white men at that. As Poynter succinctly noted, 90 percent of sports editors are white and 90 percent are male. And that’s only because ESPN has made an effort to diversify its staff.
Chart from the Women's Media Center, via Poynter.
If we want a media that will put pressure on the NFL, that will cover stories that show how the league minimizes violence against women, and that analyze the issue from any other angle that that of the athlete accused or convicted of a crime, we need to demand they hire women. A shit-ton of women. Maybe we need a coordinated social media campaign directed at sports media: #HireWomenNow.
To parallel that, the NFL itself needs a whole lot more women in its ranks. It needs them in the front office, it needs them on teams, it needs them on coaching and training staffs, it needs them in the locker room, it needs them on working on marketing and creating social media, it needs them everywhere, desperately so, and now.
But as soon as I start formulating demands for the NFL, I am stuck at the “how.” How can we make the NFL do anything at all?
If universities want federal money, they have to follow Title IX. That means ensuring that they are doing everything they can to create an atmosphere that is equitable and safe for everybody, so that no one’s access to education is impeded by the culture on campus. Let’s apply this to the NFL. If the NFL wants to retain its nonprofit status, they need to implement a league-wide system to actually make sure that the list of preventive, proactive, and education-based measures in their new domestic violence and sexual assault policy are carried out by all 32 teams on a consistent and constant basis. Write your legislators and let me know how you want your taxes used.
On a local level, petition your team to donate money to domestic violence shelters (not once but repeatedly, every month), to fund Coaching Boys Into Men programs in all local middle school and high schools, and to directly engage their community in discussions about preventing violence against women (here’s an example of what that can look like).
In prepping for this piece, I asked my friends what else we could be doing. One suggested, a coordinated social media campaign involving women wearing their favorite jerseys and saying something like “I need the NFL to step up to stop domestic violence.” She added, “Supporting women isn't just about wearing pink in October.’” Another called for the creation of “a big-ass coalition of women's organizations that will shame those boys into doing what we ask.” Another said, “It might be an easier first step to get a couple of mayors or local Congresspeople on the case instead of directly on the NFL. I bet if the mayor of Baltimore publicly pressured the Ravens for action in the form of money and/or program sponsorship it would send a very, very strong statement.”
Maybe enough people boycotting together will change the NFL. But it may also take fundamental shifts in the demographics of sports media and the leagues and teams themselves. It could take federal pressure on the league’s coveted non-profit status or local-level moves to force teams to act more responsibly. I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes a big ass coalition of women’s organizations and smart, insightful social media campaigns, too.
If you are going to change a money-making machine like the NFL, it will take much more than individuals deciding not to consume its products. The goal is noble and righteous, for sure, but there is nothing easy about achieving it. But the problem is real and it is current and it will remain so unless there is substantial, dare I say systemic, change.
In the end, whether or not you continue to consume the NFL, there are plenty of ways to demand and work towards change in the NFL. Where should we start first?
Related Reading: Examining the NFL's Domestic Violence Problem.
Jessica Luther is a writer and journalist currently under contract to write a book on college football and sexual assault.