Domestic violence, and the consequences for its victims, perpetrators, and all of us, are much in the news thanks to the NFL‘s ongoing bungling of the case of abuser/running-back Ray Rice, formerly of the Ravens. On the clinical social work spectrum, violence is a behavioral health matter; on the playing field of America, the NFL (National Football League) case implicates us in hypocrisy, voyeurism, and denial. The problem is massive, and the lines have become blurred.

Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice

Few would claim that the Commissioner’s office of the NFL is the best place for America to examine domestic violence in our society. Domestic abuse cases properly belong in a court of law; but in the Rice incident—he hit his fiancée so hard that he knocked her out—as in those of so many other athletes and celebrities, the usual rules do not apply. For one thing, “image” is the over-ruling consideration in this case—not the actual abuse. The NFL, like other professional sports leagues, is consumed with its “brand” and its “image,” which are fundamental to its multi-billion dollar business.

The NFL’s stock in trade is the controlled violence of its sport. It has been very successful in creating that violence-based product: professional football is America’s favorite sport for viewing among both women and men, with tens of millions of people invested in watching the games on TV (sometimes several per week) and buying the team-related merchandise put out by the league, to say nothing of the millions who participate in “fantasy leagues.”  Every NFL insider knows that on the fringes of the sport—after-hours, off-season, behind closed doors—there is a tremendous amount of violence involving the players; but these matters are not discussed.

From the NFL perspective, nothing could be more injurious to the quality of their product than to have a high-profile incident of off-field violence that crosses over into public consciousness, as when the star running back of the Super Bowl champion, Ray Rice, assaulted his then-fiancée (now wife), Janay Palmer, in a hotel elevator, as was made inescapably clear by a videotape showing him dragging her unconscious body into the hallway. As the guardian of their enterprise, and of America’s most popular sport, the NFL decided to try to manage this illegal off-field violence (by a very popular player) in a way that minimized its impact and separated it from the on-field violence that it purveys.

At no point, in the early going of this intersection between image and reality, did the NFL, or the media, focus on the most important issue, which was domestic violence itself, and this instance in particular—the reality of a professional athlete punching a woman so hard as to knock her out. That was the one “image” that could not be allowed to dominate the discussion, from an NFL perspective; and that was the subject that it sought to “spin” into an irrelevancy. But domestic violence is not a matter of PR; and the NFL, given the chance to address a very real national problem, totally failed—not just failed itself, but failed all of its fans, and our entire society, which needs to understand the pervasiveness of abuse and its impact on all of us.

(to be continued)

[Image From Reuters]

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