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On the NFL’s dark, intractable history of domestic violence

On January 1, 2005, in the dark, early hours of New Year’s Day, police responded to a call from the girlfriend of Denver Broncos defensive back Willie Middlebrooks. She told them that she and Middlebrooks had fought earlier that night, and he was still angry when he came home. According to the police report, he grabbed her by the hair and then tried to choke her twice, once so forcefully that he lifted her off the floor. She was treated for injuries at a local hospital; he would later plead guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge. The Broncos traded Middlebrooks to the San Francisco 49ers later that summer. “The 49ers did their research and found out that Willie is a high-character guy who was in a bad situation,” Middlebrooks’s agent told the San Jose Mercury News. “Sometimes guys just need a change of scenery.”

On Valentine’s Day 2005, Tennessee Titans cornerback Samari Rolle hit his wife, Danisha, giving her a gash that required three stitches over her left eye. Three weeks later, the Ravens signed him to a six-year deal worth $30.5 million. After Rolle pleaded guilty to assaulting his wife, the NFL fined him one game’s paycheck but let him play.

On April 26, 2005, Brad Hopkins, left tackle for the Tennessee Titans, pleaded guilty to assaulting his wife, Ellen. According to the police report, Hopkins became angry and choked her because she refused to stop talking to an insurance agent about adding a car to their coverage. He pleaded guilty, and the NFL suspended Hopkins for one game.

On August 28, 2005, police responded to a 911 call from the home of Tasha and Kevin Williams. They found Tasha, a Louisiana Tech University senior who had married Kevin, a Vikings All-Pro defensive tackle, earlier that summer, with two lacerations on her left forearm and blood on her white shirt. She told police that Kevin had pushed her when he saw that she wasn’t wearing her wedding ring. After she hit him with her cell phone, he threw her across the bed and into a nightstand, then jumped on her. She grabbed a knife, which he wrestled from her. Police noticed that Kevin was drunk and “not fully aware or really caring about what was going on.” He pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and was sentenced to a $1,000 fine and one year of probation. The NFL did not suspend him.1

Nine NFL players were arrested on domestic assault charges in 2005, Paul Tagliabue’s last full year as NFL commissioner.2 Among those nine arrests, Hopkins’s single-game penalty was the only suspension the league handed out that year. The following year, Tagliabue was succeeded as commissioner by Roger Goodell.

Domestic violence is not a new problem in the NFL.

After TMZ released the tape that showed the heavy left hook that Ray Rice landed on Janay Palmer (then his fiancée, now his wife) in a casino elevator in February, Roger Goodell defended his decision to replace the two-game suspension he had originally issued to Rice with an indefinite suspension by saying that the video was “starkly different” from what he’d been told. The Ravens explained their decision to cut Rice, whom they had vigorously supported, by saying that “seeing that video changed everything.” Football analysts expressed their maiden moral outrage about domestic violence by saying, The video probably shouldn’t have mattered, but it changed everything. The public turned a minor protest against Goodell’s decision to suspend the All-Pro running back into overwhelming pressure. The video changed everything.

The video should have changed nothing. The facts remained unchanged: Rice punched Janay Palmer before half-lifting, half-dragging her limp body out of the elevator. Ray Rice is a 212-pound football player. He can bench 400 pounds. The apparent inability of the public to picture just how awful the scene looked without actually watching a video of it amounted to a failure of imagination and a failure of empathy and will.

But no one could escape the video, and no one could deny its power. It did change things, and some things for the better. People who had never cared about domestic violence were forced to pay attention. Victims of domestic violence who felt isolated or helpless began to share their stories or seek help. The number of calls to the National Domestic Violence Hotline shot up 84 percent two days after the video’s release. After Janay Rice’s angry defense of her husband on social media, there was a widespread conversation about the complex psychology of victims of domestic violence. Those inclined to let the victim shoulder some of the blame had to backtrack. Hours after releasing Rice, the Ravens deleted a tweet from May that said, “Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident.”

The video left no doubt about what had happened. The punch was no longer “alleged.” The possibility, “hypothetically speaking,” that Janay had done something to somehow provoke the attack — always the most reprehensible suggestion — was shown to be impossible.

The video from the elevator wasn’t entertainment — but it was a spectacle. The site that released it, TMZ, reports on celebrities, making news of disgrace. It was aired and reaired; it was embedded in story after story. My Twitter and Facebook feeds were filled with little else. What I saw when I watched the video was repellent — and yet, confronted with it, I kept watching. Most others did too. The medium galvanized us; the experience was visceral and physical. It was personally involving. People didn’t have to see what happened in that elevator to believe it, but seeing it made people feel it. What Rice did was “disgusting,” “shocking,” “sickening.” Even as the video made people more aware of the widespread problem of domestic assault, it became possible to treat Ray Rice’s case as singular. The video made the incident seem sensational, extraordinary. Rice needed to be run out of town, but the Panthers’ Greg Hardy, who was convicted this summer of assaulting his girlfriend and making threats against her life (he is appealing the verdict), and the 49ers’ Ray McDonald, who is being investigated on allegations that he assaulted his pregnant fiancée, were treated with less urgency. The grainy image of a stocky man in an elevator coldcocking a woman was so specific that it encouraged people to respond to the incident as if it were unique.

The video did something else. Its existence turned what had been a serious but abstract problem into a scandal. It brought greater awareness to the NFL’s long history of tolerating high rates of domestic violence, but it didn’t prompt most people to explore why. The story became a kind of conspiracy, talked about in excited tones. Had Goodell seen the tape? If he hadn’t, why hadn’t he? Was he incompetent? Who knew what, and when? Was there a conspiracy here? Who was lying? What else was the league hiding? Conveniently, these were questions with answers. This was a crime that could be solved. The problem had a clean solution: Get rid of Roger Goodell.

Goodell should go. He should have the grace to recognize that whatever profits he has reaped for the NFL, his leadership hurts the sport. His tenure has been marked by hypocrisy, obfuscation, and negligence, and he should resign. If he doesn’t, then he should be fired.

But Roger Goodell isn’t what’s really wrong with football.

One hundred eighty-seven million Americans describe themselves as fans of the NFL. That’s 60 percent of the country’s population. Think about that for a second. The NFL makes about $9.5 billion in annual revenue, and Goodell has set a target goal of $25 billion by 2027. So far, damaging controversies have only helped ratings: 20.8 million people watched Thursday night’s game between the Ravens and Steelers — a 108 percent increase over last year’s Thursday Night Football opener; 22.2 million watched Sunday night’s game between the Bears and the 49ers, making Sunday Night Football the most-watched broadcast of the week.

Americans watch football for many reasons — for the memory of the ball in their hands, for the sight of a Hail Mary, for the fantasy leagues, for beer and chicken wings, for the adrenaline rush that comes when they see a wide receiver soar for a catch. Football encourages some deep tremor of romance about what it means to be a man — even, it should be said, among the sport’s many female fans. Save for the military — with which it has a symbiotic relationship — the NFL is the biggest and strongest exponent of American masculinity.

And integral to that notion of American masculinity is violence. Football is our culture’s great spectacle of violence, our version of the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome. You can see signs of football’s celebration of amped-up manhood in the pageantry of our own bread and circuses: the military jet flyovers, the Built Ford Tough commercials, the shiny uniforms, the amplified crunching sound of hard hits, the big-knotted ties, and the pregame show special effects that seem like something out of Transformers 12. You can see it in the silver gladiator mask that Terrell Suggs wore during the pregame introductions when the Ravens played the Steelers last Thursday. But those are only symptoms. Get rid of the truck commercials, get rid of the gun salutes, and you’d still have the violence on the field. Get rid of the gladiator mask, and you’d still have Suggs.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens

Two years ago, Suggs’s girlfriend (now wife), Candace Williams, sought a protective order against him, accusing him of punching her and dragging her alongside a car. When the order was granted, Suggs was required to hand over his guns, including an AK-47, because of “reasonable grounds to believe the person seeking a protective order has been abused.” The 2012 accusations were not the first Williams made against Suggs. In 2009, Williams had accused him of spilling bleach on her and her son. He had previously given her, she said, “busted lips, broken nose, black eyes, bruises.” The accusations against Suggs were extensively reported both in 2009 and 2012. The NFL never suspended him. The public didn’t make much of a protest. This February, two days after Rice knocked Janay Palmer unconscious, Suggs signed a four-year deal with $16 million in guaranteed money. On Thursday before the game, as he danced on the field in his gladiator helmet, the crowd — 71,000, a sellout — went wild. An NFL house ad appeared on the CBS telecast saying, “Why do we love football?”

There are 1,696 active players in the NFL. Even if, as FiveThirtyEight’s Benjamin Morris found, NFL players are arrested on domestic assault charges at rates that are, relative to income level, “downright extraordinary,” very few of them will ever beat women. Most of them are good guys trying to do a job. Still, the job they do is part of a culture of aggression. Football is a pantomime of war, down to the pseudo-military tactics. But it is not a pantomime of violence. It is actual violence.

I’m not just talking about the injuries that players inflict on each other — the torn ligaments and compound fractures, or the smaller, persistent injuries that lead to chronic pain and pill addictions and make it hard for them just to sit on the floor and play with their kids. I’m not even talking about their head injuries, the repeated blows that are slowly deforming their brains, or the fact that even if no one dies, that doesn’t mean that death isn’t hastened. (Even the league is now admitting that one in three former players will have cognitive problems at “notably younger ages” than the average population. One symptom of CTE happens to be increased aggression.) The real problem is that infliction of pain is romanticized and ritualized. Hitting is the point. Inflicting injury is nominally avoided — but hurting the other team helps. “It’s a bully division,” Arizona’s general manager, Steve Keim, told Grantland’s Robert Mays earlier this year, “so we had to add our number of bullies to our defense.” He meant that as a good thing.

I get it. I didn’t blink at first when I read Keim’s words. I smile instinctively when I see a hit. The pirates of Seattle’s secondary routinely amaze me. I have come to love a good road-grading offensive line. I see it and I respond to football instinctively. I feel it. It taps into some dark and thrilling part of me, the sight of those magnificent athletes trying to make contact or elude it. I wish I could say that feeling is harmless, that it allows for a release of my most dangerous instincts without putting me in contact with actual danger, that it allows me to desire dominance without turning me into some kind of would-be dictator. Watching football connects me to friends and to strangers. It helps me lose myself in something bigger, something almost transcendent. It reminds me of my father, and of afternoons spent outside in the backyard learning to throw a spiral. The acrobatics of the best make me catch my breath in awe. It is just so much fun to watch.

I wish I could say that it is a substitute for violence, that it releases and diffuses that domineering, competitive instinct latent in human nature, and leaves us with some measure of self-respect — some awareness of courage and strength. But I think I’m lying to myself. Because when I’m honest, I can see that within the culture of football, as a woman, I’m not respected. The women I see are cheerleaders, sideline reporters, WAGs. I hear men talk, and I know that when they use the word “girl,” it’s shorthand for something weak.

Domestic violence is not a football problem; it is a societal problem. One in every four women will be a victim of domestic violence in her lifetime. The he-said, she-said nature makes it hard to gather evidence. Domestic violence is one of the most complex and intractable problems that our legal system faces, and it remains a great taboo: Only one-quarter of physical assaults are reported to the police, and often victims don’t want to prosecute. Entangled personal histories and an understandable desire for privacy can make these cases hard. Sometimes women don’t want to cooperate, believing any punishment would harm them as well. Sometimes women throw punches. Sometimes they just want to move on. It can be hard to know exactly what happened. There usually isn’t a tape.

Domestic violence does not happen on a football field. It happens in bedrooms, cars, parking lots, elevators. Intimate-partner violence and sexual assault are epidemic in the military. They are pervasive in Silicon Valley, on college campuses, in small Alaskan towns. They exist in all countries and in all times. Getting rid of football would do nothing to change this.

And yet there are connections between a culture that sidelines women and disrespects them, a culture that disrespects women and tolerates violence toward them, and a culture that tolerates violence toward them and commits violence toward them. Nearly half — 48 percent — of all arrests for violent crimes among NFL players are arrests for domestic violence.

The NFL calls itself a family. If that’s the case, then it’s a fucked-up family.

Men have worried that masculinity was under threat for as long as football has been around. The sport as we know it, after all, began during an era and in a class so nervous about decline that there was a condition, neurasthenia, to describe men’s anxiety. The easiest way to prove you were a man was to adopt an attitude of aggression. Those who were vulnerable or different were, and are, not merely unwelcome. It’s as if they were contagious. It is as if they were dangerous.

On Sunday, I turned on the Chiefs and Broncos just in time to see Kansas City tight end Anthony Fasano make a ridiculous juggling catch, somehow maintaining enough awareness and enough body control to collect the ball as he crashed to the ground. My eyes widened with goofy surprise and I made an inarticulate, happy shout. It was just awe-inspiring to watch.

And then I thought of a story involving the Chiefs that briefly dominated the news cycle two years ago, before it was forgotten. It was a story that seemed certain to force the league to change, but nothing happened. In 2012, Jovan Belcher, a Kansas City Chiefs linebacker, became the sixth NFL player to commit suicide in two years. Before he drove to the Arrowhead Stadium parking lot and shot himself, he killed his girlfriend, with whom he had a child. It didn’t happen on the Chiefs’ field, but it was damn close. It is hard not to think of Belcher as a casualty of the game. But he was also the killer of his child’s mother.

The NFL calls itself a family. If that’s the case, it’s a family of fathers and sons but not wives and daughters. It’s a family that more closely resembles the mob than a family connected by blood or love. It’s a family that protects its own by cutting others, a family that privileges loyalty over what’s right. But loyalty goes only so far in the NFL — because at some not-so-distant point, the family turns into a business. When concussions enter into it, or salary caps, or age, the family becomes about winning Sunday’s big game or about the business’s bottom line. If it’s a family, then it’s a fucked-up family.

The league can educate players about domestic violence, increase penalties, and provide continuing and intensive anger management. It can add more women to the higher ranks and put them in visible positions of power. But it won’t be enough.

Goodell does need to go. As Cris Carter said in his impassioned speech about Adrian Peterson’s alleged abuse of his son, taking a man off the field is what men will respect. It is a show of power, and men respond to power. But getting rid of Goodell won’t change the latent and virulent hostility toward those who don’t conform to the culture’s projection of masculinity, and it won’t change the sport. The violence will still be there. If we take the violence out of football, what’s left? 

Filed Under: NFL, Ray Rice, domestic violence, Roger Goodell, Football, violence, concussions

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Louisa Thomas is a Grantland staff writer and editor.

Archive @ louisahthomas