Traynor: The NFL Has a Problem
The consistent failure of the National Football League and the football industry in general to hold its players and representatives to a higher standard is tragic. Recently, the Ray Rice domestic violence scandal and allegations of child abuse against Adrian Peterson have spurred these failures into the foreground. The frequency and severity of these incidents speak volumes about the current state of the league — an organization that once had such honorable figures as Vince Lombardi, Joe Montana and Joe Namath. While the NFL has continued to make more and more money through TV deals and endorsements, the league’s character has not risen in kind. While public outcry encouraged the NFL to increase Rice’s punishment, football fans must continue demanding a higher standard of character from the sport’s representatives — and heavier repercussions for those professional athletes who betray the public’s trust.
Unfortunately, the Rice scandal is not an isolated incident. In 2012, many people in the New Orleans Saints organization were discovered to have rewarded players for injuring their opponents, a scandal known as “Bountygate.” Michael Vick, currently playing for the New York Jets, was sent to prison in 2007 for his role in organizing a dog-fighting ring. Ben Roethlisberger of the Pittsburgh Steelers has been accused multiple times of sexual assault. The NFL team in Washington, D.C., still uses a racial slur as its team name and mascot. Allegations of homophobia have surfaced in both the Miami Dolphins and the Minnesota Vikings organizations. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was just fined $11,000 for dropping the n-word during an altercation with an opposing player. Aaron Hernandez, formerly of the New England Patriots, has been indicted on three charges of murder. The list borders on endless, and it is as appalling as it is long.
Compounding these problems is the consistent failure of the NFL and its commissioner to meaningfully punish players who commit serious offenses. Rice was initially suspended for only two games. In light of the scandal, the NFL drafted a new domestic violence policy, which includes a six-game minimum suspension for first offenses. The new minimum — still too short by far — is four times the former average length of punishments for domestic violence, according to data compiled by FiveThirtyEight. Note the context here: the NFL routinely suspends players for upwards of four games for marijuana possession and related offenses. Why is having a small amount of marijuana even in the same order of magnitude as assault? Indeed, if there hadn’t been the level of public outcry on social media and other outlets in response to Ray Rice — if there hadn’t been an actual video of the horrific assault — he would probably be playing next Sunday.
One would hope that the league’s fans would hear of these crimes and demand lasting change. Though fans did demand justice in Rice’s case, its resolution took a lot longer than it should have. The country deserves better from an organization that holds such a visible position in our society. The league needs to make clear to its players and fans that conduct such as Rice’s and others’ will absolutely not be tolerated. Any violations of basic standards of conduct must result in significant punishment. Though the NFL has made some changes to its domestic violence policy, this is not nearly enough. It is a sad fact that it is only a matter of time before an incident like Rice’s happens again. The punishment should not be six games. It should be a season, and quite possibly an indefinite suspension. We cannot wait for the next tragedy to occur, for the next cycle of news reports, shameful behavior and victim-blaming. The NFL is currently lagging far behind the curve in the standards it holds for its representatives, and this is unacceptable.
Lately, the NFL has only meaningfully responded when its public image took serious hits — that is, when fans have been loud enough. As fans, we must demand better character from the NFL — from its players, coaches, sponsors and leaders.