On Thursday night, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott took home the 2023 Walter Payton Man of the Year award—one of the most prestigious honors given out by the NFL just before the Super Bowl each year. Named for the late Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton, the award is meant to celebrate the legacy of a player who has shown dedication to philanthropy and their community, as well as to the game itself, and Payton was largely considered a humanitarian by those who knew him.
Though there are certainly plenty of bright spots throughout the NFL, celebrating the best of the best of NFL players—the chivalrous, the altruistic, the forward-looking, and the service-oriented—only sharpens the contrast between those who conduct themselves with decency and those who treat women as disposable objects. Despite efforts from the league to bolster both its gender diversity and sensitivity training, this growing contingent of players from unknown free agents to certified superstars, horrifyingly, doesn’t show any signs of stopping. Given that studies have shown instances of domestic violence tick up annually around the time the Super Bowl airs, we know that the type of men we hoist up as heroes has an impact on the behavior of men at home. Essentially, playing football was never just a game—it was always about the kind of men our culture reveres and what we allow them to get away with.
As we count down to the hullabaloo and masculinity smackdown of the Super Bowl—fielding distractions from Jennifer Coolidge playing a dolphin in an Elf Cosmetics commercial to what’s sure to be a genre-defying halftime performance from Rihanna—it has perhaps never been more important to underline just how rampant sexual assault runs amongst NFL players. And this year in particular, those players have come unsettlingly close to participating in the Big Game themselves.
On February 2, less than two weeks out from this year’s showdown between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs, an Eagles offensive lineman, Josh Sills, was indicted on rape and kidnapping charges in Ohio. According to police reports, Sills allegedly forced a young woman he knew from his hometown to perform oral sex on him for approximately 20 minutes, despite her repeated protests. Representatives for Sills have claimed the allegations are false, but photos of the victim taken by police showed bruising at the back of her throat and her inner lip.
Though Sills is a rookie reserve player who suited up for just one game for the Eagles this season, the prospect of a man accused of sexual assault jogging onto one of the biggest stages in the world without a care in the world is chilling. Sills may have been banned from this weekend’s game by the NFL, but it’s the ease with which he almost appeared on that field that reminds us how often victims don’t come forward, and how massive the power imbalance between an NFL player and an everyday woman really is.
Then, on Monday, reports came to light that Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon had allegedly threatened to shoot a woman in a “road rage” incident…less than 24 hours before the Bengals played the Buffalo Bills in a January playoff game, according to TMZ. A police report obtained by TMZ detailed how a 43-year-old woman told cops that a man now believed to be Mixon “brandished a firearm and threatened to shoot her.” The following day, the Bengals defeated the Bills, advancing to the AFC championship game. The Bengals and Mixon were one game away from going to the Super Bowl.
The entire 2023 season has followed a similarly disturbing theme. The valor and fun of football was repeatedly overshadowed by violence (Deshaun Watson allegedly sexually harassed at least two dozen women massage therapists) and tragedy (Damar Hamlin suffered a mid-game cardiac arrest, leaving the entire NFL community speechless). Meanwhile, a years-long investigation into the Washington Commanders’ toxic workplace has been underway, ultimately revealing that women across the organization have been heckled and harassed by their male superiors, allegedly including Commanders owner Dan Snyder himself.
Despite the wunderkind of the NFL, like beloved pro-abortion superstar Joe Burrow, the abhorrent sexual violence appears to be the rule, not the exception. The only question that remains is whether the NFL will do anything about it. My advice? Don’t hold your breath.