“The NFL doesn’t have a Ray Rice problem, it has a violence against women problem,” said the National Organization for Women president, Terry O’Neill. Regardless of the attempts to appear responsive to evidence of the Baltimore Raven’s running back brutally punching his then-fiancé in the face, it is obvious that O’Neill is correct. The NFL, professional sports and our entire society still has a long way to go on the issue of domestic violence. And here’s the thing: professional athletes are always thumping their chests and calling themselves “heroes”. These players are exalted and glorified, and some have even compared themselves to real heroes like soldiers on battlefields. Talk about self-delusion.
I love sports, which makes me like many others, I suspect; disgusted at the way the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL have failed to take action. I keep thinking about the adage that with great opportunity comes great responsibility. The NFL is a billion dollar organization, its owners making piles of cash, and players making millions to—let’s be honest—play games. But rather than understanding that they have financial security and opportunities beyond 99% of their fans’ wildest dreams, the attitude has been to ignore, minimize, excuse, and when all else fails, blame the victim.
I began to have a bit of hope for necessary backlash from the public and other players when I saw people burning their #27 jerseys and asking for refunds. Former and current players tweeted messages condemning Rice and the Roger Goodell’s inept handling of the situation. I applaud the players who have had the good sense to speak out against Rice and Goodell. But then… In the press conference announcing the Raven’s decision to cut Rice, Coach Jim Harbaugh just couldn’t bring himself to call Rice out for reprehensible behavior. He just couldn’t say, ‘The Baltimore Ravens and I personally have no tolerance for anyone who would commit acts of domestic violence.’ He just couldn’t do it. Instead, he said, “When someone you care about has done wrong and has to face the consequence, it’s hurtful.” Whoa! Now there’s a strong stand against a violent assault! Way to lead, Jim.
Then, a couple of days later, following a Thursday night game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Ravens had yet another opportunity to distance themselves from the ugliness of Rice’s actions and make a statement against his inexcusable behavior. What happened? Their coach once again showed his failure of leadership, lauding the performance of his players in the face of all the adversity of the week. Oh, waaaahhh! Poor players, poor Ravens, poor Jim, it’s been so difficult to function since having to fess up to their buddy Ray’s violent assault on his wife. I, frankly, am shocked that they’ve been able to cope. Why it’s been downright torturous, but they overcame it all to win the game! Woohoo! They ARE heroes! And just like true heroes, they didn’t quietly walk off the field, feeling fortunate for their many blessings, they thumped their chests and couldn’t resist spouting off.
Several players, including Torrey Smith, C.J. Mosely and Jacoby Jones, said that the win against the Steelers was dedicated to Ray Rice. Smith said, “Ray is still a great guy.” Wait. Great Guy? Seriously? Hey, guys, newsflash…great guys don’t punch their wives in the face. Just sayin’. While we’re setting things straight, you don’t dedicate games to wife beaters. Doing so is tantamount to a big F-you to, not only victims of domestic violence, but society and NFL fans in general. You dedicate games to players who get injured, teammates who are killed tragically in some accident, maybe a kid with cancer who is a diehard fan of the team, but not a guy who just knocked his wife out with a punch to the face.
Somebody needs to clue the NFL and it’s players into what it really means to be a hero. I’ll start with a definition from Merriam-Webster. Hero: noun \ˈhir-(ˌ)ō\ : a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities : a person who is greatly admired It should go without saying that beating one’s wife doesn’t qualify as a brave act or fine quality. In fact, nothing about playing your game truly qualifies as a “brave act”. I’m thinking that the sooner professional athletes get that reality check, the sooner we might be able to have a serious conversation about the responsibility that comes with the wealth and privilege of being a professional athlete. The responsibility of your position requires you to at least attempt try to live up to some higher standard. You can’t have it both ways; calling yourselves heroes, and then claiming you can’t help it when you step out of line and commit a crime. You don’t like it? Then find another career. In the meantime, why don’t you try something novel, you heroes of the gridiron, stop condoning violence against women. Shun those who beat their wives. Take a stand of real leadership. And hey, Ravens? How’s this for an idea: Dedicate your season to domestic violence awareness. Own up to your responsibility as examples. That’s what real heroes do.