Every October, the NFL festoons its players and stadiums in a cloying shade of pink and slaps its TV spots and billboards with an altruistic message: the NFL cares about breast cancer awareness, and by extension, cares about women. One thing the NFL hasn't acknowledged during its annual designated Lady Awareness Time is that October has long been the month devoted to a much more widely ignored public health issue that affects women: domestic violence.
The Ray Rice case is a microcosm of the myriad ways the NFL is part of the problem when it comes to domestic violence. Video depicting Ray Rice dragging his unconscious fiancee out of a hotel elevator wasn't enough to convince execs that serious professional penalties were in order (what did they think happened inside the elevator, a tickle fight?). Officials heard testimony from Janay Rice with her abuser present at the hearing. The Baltimore Ravens sent out a since-deleted Tweet that indicated to their hundreds of thousands of fans that Janay Rice was sorry for the role she played in the night of the incident. (What role? Having a face that got in the way of Ray Rice's absently punching fists?) It's hard to imagine how much more wrong they could have gotten this.
But the NFL's completely and utterly fucked up history of ignoring and minimizing domestic violence perpetrated by players extends well beyond Ray Rice. Although the league acted swiftly to hand down an indefinite suspension to the Ravens star after the public watched a tape of him punching his fiancee in the face that executives said they hadn't seen (but probably had), there are still at least a few players guilty of off-camera violence that haven't faced any penalties from the league. The Carolina Panthers' Greg Hardy was convicted of assaulting and threatening to kill his ex girlfriend earlier this year, and the only penalty he got from his team was a stern talking-to. Arizona Cardinals player Daryl Washington broke the collarbone of the mother of his child, and is currently benched — but on a drug-related suspension. San Francisco 49'ers player Ray McDonald was arrested on suspicion of felony domestic violence just weeks ago, and has yet to face any discipline (however, the team did suspend an announcer who called Janay Rice "pathetic." I guess saying mean things about domestic violence victims is worse than actually, uh, performing domestic violence). Lucky for them, there weren't any cameras present when they decided to attack their girlfriends. Five Thirty Eight found that among men with similar incomes, the rate of domestic violence arrests among NFL players since the year 2000 is astronomical.
The NFL's lackadaisical attitude toward violence against women is a goddamn disgrace, especially considering how huge a huge problem domestic violence is in this country. According to data released last week by the CDC, one in four women will be victims of severe violence at the hands of an intimate partner in their lifetimes. Less severe intimate partner violence is experienced by one in three American women, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and one in ten men have experienced similar abuse from a lover or partner. Domestic violence affects people of all income levels, races, genders, and religion, and is often accompanied by emotional abuse that makes victims feel as though they are the ones responsible for what is or has happened to them, that they somehow made him do it, that they, as the Ravens might tweet or Stephen A. Smith might declare on ESPN, played a role. To paraphrase an acquaintance who specializes in public health, domestic violence a large scale problem with criminally few resources devoted to finding solutions.
On the other end of the funding need spectrum: breast cancer. The prom queen of cause marketing. Every October, products from perfume to cleaning supplies to yogurt are pinkified and sold to consumers under the guise of "awareness." There are walks and marches and fun runs and ads, ads, ads, ads on everything reminding women to check for lumps, get mammograms when they get to that age, stay on top of their health. Angelina Jolie is writing op-eds about double mastectomies in the New York Times. Breast cancer awareness has so permeated the US that no-copay mammograms for women are now required by law, thanks to Obamacare.
Pushing for more Awareness would be redundant even if the NFL's A Crucial Catch program were well-run and effective in actually fighting cancer. But it's not. A Crucial Catch does a lot more to raise NFL awareness than it does to raise breast cancer awareness or search for a cure. In fact, of all of the money the NFL raises for breast cancer research, analysts estimate that only 8% of it ever goes to breast cancer research (exact figures are hard to get, as the NFL is incredibly dodgy about turning over financials for A Crucial Catch). If you, as a consumer, are really that interested in a cure for breast cancer, you're better off just giving a large earmarked sum of money directly to a research hospital, or the American Cancer Society.
Logistically, dumping the pink washing in favor of domestic violence awareness would be tough at this point; October is only a few weeks away and I'm sure there are piles of unintentionally ironic pink Ben Roethlisberger jerseys all ready for the selling.
But NFL fans will be well aware of domestic violence for the near future, whether the League wants them to forget all about this embarrassment or not. And the NFL is in a unique position to take this disaster and turn it into something incredibly useful and good. The League could be global leaders in domestic violence awareness and prevention if they chose to the lead on this now. They could prove to disillusioned fans that they really do give a shit about the millions of women who tune in to NFL games every week. They could open up lifelines to women who didn't feel like they had anywhere to go or any place to turn.
Tonight, before Ray Rice's team takes the field clad in purple (which happens to be the color that represents Domestic Violence Awareness month), fans will be treated to NBC's new theme song for Thursday Night Football. Performed by Jay-Z with a hook sung by pop icon (and domestic assault survivor) Rihanna. And while the Ravens won't be playing every Thursday, the song will. Every Thursday, from now until the end of this season, NFL fans will see and hear Rihanna before games. As the Washington Post put it, this won't exactly help the stench won't go away.
NFL officials have a choice. They can shove their heads in the sand and hope against hope that everyone eventually forgets about all this, or they can use the massive amount of resources and power they have to do something positive. For fucking once.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.