NFL Scandal Is Everybody’s Problem
Earlier this month, Major League Baseball suspended Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Jonathan Papelbon for seven games because he grabbed his crotch and made an obscene gesture to booing fans. That same week, upon learning that Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson had used a large switch to bloody his four-year old son’s back, legs, buttocks, face, and scrotum, the Vikings suspended their star for just one game. And so, we all learned an important lesson from the world of professional sports: grabbing your crotch is a much more serious offense than abusing someone else’s.
The Peterson case followed the discovery of a surveillance video showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching out his fiancÃ©e in an elevator, and it immediately preceded news of Arizona Cardinals RB Jonathan Dwyer head- butting his wife, and throwing a shoe at his 17-month-old baby. Meanwhile Greg Hardy and Ray MacDonald were still allowed to play for the Panthers and the 49ers respectively, even though both men had been involved in assaulting women. It has been a bad month for the NFL, whose management and team owners demonstrated a total lack of sensitivity about domestic violence, and an unwillingness to do anything about the problem. The Ravens eventually fired Rice, while the Vikings and Cardinals finally got around to telling their abusive running backs to stay home and collect millions of dollars for doing nothing.
Aside from the disturbing nature of spousal and child abuse in and unto itself, there are a number of collateral issues which should be of concern as well, because they only serve to delay, impede, and prevent any short term punitive action or long term substantive reform. Those are: greed, denial, and enabling. First is greed. In the beginning, Vikings owners appeared to be taking the appropriate action by sitting Peterson for their game against the New England Patriots. But when the Pats gave Minnesota a severe beating, those same owners reversed field and said Peterson could return for the next game. Former NFL player and coach, now ESPN analyst Herm Edwards said it best, “Winning games has become more important than doing the right thing.” In addition, most of the teams involved with the scandals only did the right thing under threat of losing corporate sponsors. That kind of greedy mentality defies common decency, and reveals an operating procedure that is devoid of empathy for victims of abuse.
Next is denial. For decades now, both league and team officials have acted as though domestic violence didn’t exist. During NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s first eight years in office, there have been nearly 60 cases of proven domestic violence, yet those offenses netted a total of only 13 suspended games. Meanwhile, Vikings owners were in a different kind of denial. During one press conference last week, they suggested that what Peterson did might not qualify as child abuse, so they were waiting to see what the courts ruled. The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart responded to that kind of arrogance and ignorance by offering one piece of simple advice, “You can’t do to a four year old child what you’re not allowed to do to a 300 pound lineman.”
Of course, society has been in denial about domestic abuse too. When we all saw the first video of Ray Rice dragging his fiancÃ©e out of the elevator, there was no public outcry. That changed when the complete video surfaced, showing Rice’s knockout punch. Same with Adrian Peterson’s crime. There was no uproar over his admission of corporally punishing his toddler, but then photos were made public, showing the bloody and bruised body of the little boy, and all of a sudden, everyone was appalled. In this viral video world of ours, it seems that we have to see a problem before we will admit that there IS a problem.
Finally, we as a society are guilty of enabling abusers, especially athletes who commit violent acts. After serving only a year in prison for torturing, burning, and murdering dogs, Michael Vick was hailed as a reformed hero, and paid millions of dollars to throw a football. His jersey became the biggest seller in the country, and most people forgave and forgot. Why? Because poor Michael revealed that he grew up with dog fighting and didn’t know any better.
Fast forward to Peterson who last week said that one of his high school coaches used to paddle him with a board. Translation? Adrian’s actions toward his son are understandable. Meanwhile, former NFL coach Tony Dungy excused Peterson’s abusive behavior as a cultural phenomena. And NBA legend Charles Barkley played the race card by implying that if what Peterson did is a crime, then every southern black parent should be in jail because they all hit their children. Newsflash Sir Charles, child abuse is a pervasive, racially blind problem.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, over 550,000 children are physically or sexually abused every year, and the Tennyson Center for Children says 80 percent of kids who die from abuse are under the age of four. Moreover, of those who survive their beatings, 30 percent of abused children will go on to abuse their own children. “Excusing this abuse as regional and cultural is how other Americans used to defend having eight-year old boys working in coal mines six days a week, or how people in the South used to defend slavery and lynching,” said ESPN’s Keith Olbermann.
The question is, why are so many infants and children beaten by their parents? Perhaps the answer lies in a 2013 Nielsen survey that showed that four out of five parents believe spanking is appropriate. Another reason is that corporal punishment is legal in all 50 states. Of course, each state has its own threshold for what constitutes abuse, but their guidelines are open to interpretation and tough to enforce. According to TIME.com, in Texas, abuse only exists when punishment “results in substantive harm to the child.” In Louisiana you can beat your child, so long as you don’t “seriously endanger their health.” And the state of Maine allows beatings so long as it results in “no more than transient discomfort.”
It’s easy to see why 39 other countries have banned all forms of corporal punishment, which begs the question, why does America still allow it?
We need to push for a federal ban on corporal punishment while the NFL scandals are still fresh in our easily distracted minds. Meanwhile, the league must work closely with colleges to require sensitivity training for all male athletes, so that there are no excuses for violence against women. Finally, punishment for collegiate and pro athletes who commit domestic violence must be swift and severe. No more one game suspensions for punching a woman unconscious, or for bloodying a toddler.
Athletes are not the only men who physically abuse family members, but right now their crimes are front and center of a debate that must give rise to reform.
Football is still a beloved sport, but we can’t play games with domestic violence any longer. !
JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15).