A federal judge has thrown out the NFL’s four game suspension of Tom Brady for allegedly playing a role in the offense of manipulating the inflation level of footballs in the last year’s AFC Championship game. This is the fifth NFL suspension of any significance that has been reduced to some degree or completely vacated by federal courts. The reason that I am writing about this has nothing to do with football. I am writing about this in hopes that this decision will mark the end of us as a country using the severity of the NFL’s punishment of its players as a barometer of how seriously, or not seriously, we take very serious offenses like domestic violence and child abuse in this country.
Over the last year, starting with the release of the horrifying video of Ray Rice knocking his soon to be wife unconscious by punching her in an Atlantic City elevator, we have been focusing incredible attention on how severely the NFL punishes its players for offenses such as the one committed by Rice. One week into last season, there was more stomach turning visual evidence when we were shown photographs of welts and gashes left in the skin of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson’s four-year-old son, including on his genitals.
In the case of Rice, the NFL’s initial punishment was a two game suspension, which amounted to approximately $800,000 in lost salary for Rice. In the case of Peterson, he spent the season on the NFL’s version of “Double Secret Probation,” the commissioner’s Non-Exempt Suspended List. That essentially means, “we can’t have you out on the field hurting our brand, but we still have to pay you.” Peterson was paid approximately $13 million for not playing. The public was outraged about both outcomes and we spent months talking about how poorly the NFL had handled these situations and how insensitive it was as an institution.
What we had almost no real discussion about, and still seem to have no interest in discussing to this day, is the fact that neither of these men were required to serve a single day in jail for these violent acts. Rice was allowed to participate in a diversion program that is very common across the country that resulted in the incident being removed from his record altogether once he completed its requirements. As of right now, as an official matter, Rice’s violent attack never happened. Peterson was allowed to plead guilty to reduced charges, served no time in jail, and just negotiated a new $40 million contract with the Vikings.
While we were organizing protests and demanding that the NFL ignore its own collective bargaining requirement with the players to levy increasingly harsh penalties, not a single state has changed its domestic violence or child abuse laws as a result of these incidents and there has been no public outcry for them to do so. In the immediate aftermath of the Rice incident, one New Jersey state senator proposed that the state conduct a review of how diversion programs are used in the state. Since then, nothing has been done to address this issue for the 150 million or so American men who do not play in the NFL.
So, why do we focus all of our attention on these high profile incidents when they take place instead of seeking solutions that will actually impact the larger community? The simple answer is that these are very difficult challenges and it is much easier to sign a petition about a football player and congratulate yourself for striking a blow against abuse. Unfortunately, this leaves millions of victims each year unprotected and many thousand abusers unpunished and undeterred from committing future abuse.
The reality is that there are many, many Ray Rice like incidents that take place in this country every year and no one says a word other the dedicated people who labor tirelessly to end domestic violence with very little assistance from the rest of us, and even less help from our laws. Why is no one is demanding that laws be changed for everyone who commits an act of domestic violence? Why are were seemingly satisfied with the hollow victory of impacting how the NFL punishes those among its 1,600 players who commit such violence? Again, it is because we can have what we want most in this country, a feeling of immediate gratification and accomplishment without having to invest real effort. Sadly, this continues to do a disservice to those who would really benefit from a serious discussion about how to effectively approach this issue.
The child abuse issue may have even more layers. As was the case with Peterson, according to his public statements, his brutal whipping of a four-year-old infant was the only way he knew to discipline his child because that is how he was disciplined as a child. Taking on that aspect of this issue is very difficult because it asks people to question their own upbringing and the way that they were treated by people who they love. There is an arguably even more difficult challenge, as well, because there are also religious and cultural components to the corporal punishment debate. We heard many people on both sides condemning and defending spanking, hitting, beating, or whipping (they are not all the same) children based on their personal experiences, religion, or race/culture. How do you take that conversation on? Instead of taking it on, we took Adrian Peterson and the NFL on, and we won. But did we? Did anything come of that situation that resulted in the protection of children or the education of parents who either know of no other way of disciplining their children or lack the control from abusing them if they are aware of alternatives?
Unfortunately, there is no evidence to suggest that these incidents and our societal reaction to them has moved the ball one inch toward changing how to deal with these issues for the better. I am hoping that going forward we will take whatever momentum might be left after the last year of discussing these issues in the context of the NFL and actually get serious about doing the hard work of finding and implementing solutions to domestic violence and child abuse. We missed a big opportunity in the last year, but it is not too late to start demanding that elected officials and other leaders do their jobs and pass and enforce laws that will be effective at reducing and hopefully completely ending two forms of abuse that have lifelong impact on their victims and on our entire country.