Ray Rice made it easy for us. Here was a running back whose performance was already trending down, took a plea deal, and followed the preferred script about begging for forgiveness. When he returned from his suspension looking for work, it was easy for teams to say no. Rice probably was going to be out of the league soon anyway; cold-cocking his future wife in a casino elevator just sped up the process.
Greg Hardy hasn’t made things so easy for the NFL or its fans. He escaped his conviction with the help of a settlement with the woman he was charged with beating up, who soon afterward decided to not show up for court. He won’t apologize or even pretend he has changed; he filmed a stripper-filled video during his suspension and upon his return had no problems making some of the worst possible comments to reporters. Unlike Rice, he’s still young and still talented, and that’s why he just needed one team whose defense desperately needed help with its pass rush. That’s why Jerry Jones crowed about him Sunday, after an an otherwise dismal loss to the Patriots, calling Hardy “a part of the best part of our team today.”
This is what happens when you ask for moral guidance from a bunch of billionaires: They laugh in your face, then get back to counting their money and trying to win at whatever game they’re playing.
And this is the problem with buying into The Shield, believing that athletes are or can be moral leaders, or thinking that a sheltered and not especially bright rich kid who’s only worked for one employer his entire life is going be the person who makes a difference in our country’s longstanding problem with domestic violence. All of that is just public relations. Expecting the NFL to be the difference-maker on an issue so pervasive, so morbidly commonplace in America that the CDC estimates that one out of four women will be the victim of “severe physical violence” by an intimate partner, is at best incredibly optimistic, and that’s before you realize it’s Roger Goodell who’s in charge. On a more realistic level, it ignores that the NFL really only has has one purpose—making as much money as possible.
To longtime NFL fans, though, if we’re being honest with ourselves, none of this is any surprise at all. I sure as hell can’t claim I’m shocked, because I grew up in a Pittsburgh Steelers family, and I remember 2010.
Five years ago, I swore I’d never watch football again, when Ben Roethlisberger was facing his second rape accusation 12 months. I watched as fans called for the quarterback to be cut. I felt disgust as the district attorney explained why he couldn’t bring charges in one of the cases due to a lack of evidence, but went ahead and outlined what he did know: a bodyguard for the QB guided the woman down a hallway, Roethlisberger followed, and an exam later found bruising and slight bleeding on the woman, but no semen. Terry Bradshaw called for the Steelers to dump him.
I agreed, so much so I that told my dad during one our regular football calls. Now, my dad is the kind of man who raised his only daughter to understand her own car maintenance (because he didn’t want me to need a man to do it for me), have her own career (because he didn’t want me depending on a man for that, either), and out NFL-history nerd any person, man or woman, in the room. And when I told him I wanted the Steelers to dump Big Ben, he laughed and told me that would never happen, because Roethlisberger is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and that’s how business works.
He was right. Months later, the Steelers reached the Super Bowl, and not only had I given up on saying Big Ben needed to be dumped, I was the one who bought us Primanti Bros. pizza and Iron City beers for the game. The Steelers lost to Green Bay, and part of me wondered if it was if the work of a higher power making sure a semblance of justice remained in this world, if somewhere Goodell was heaving a sigh of relief that he wouldn’t have to hand that man the Super Bowl trophy.
On paper, so much has changed for the NFL. They’ve gotten very good at issuing press releases when they make donations to anti-domestic violence organizations. They’ve added a vice-president of social responsibility. (The strongest words she had for Hardy on Sunday was that she was “disappointed”in him.) And this time around, an entire phalanx of sports commentators expressed disgust. But the facts haven’t budged one bit. The closest thing to truth came from Charlie Batch in an NFL.com feature this year about Big Ben that just as easily applies to Hardy.
“No. 1, if he wasn’t as talented as he was, the team would have cut him,” Batch said, explaining one topic he and Roethlisberger discussed that spring. “A lot of people might not have had second or third chances.”
It’s easy to call Hardy horrible—I’ve certainly done it—but it’s worth considering this. In 2014, then-Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams lost his mother after a lengthy battle with breast cancer. The team made a good show of using Williams’s mother for public relations during her battle, celebrating her each October during her treatment. When she died, though, nobody from the team came to her funeral except for one man: Greg Hardy.
“Greg Hardy was there [...] he was the only one there for me. All the players around the league, all the players in the locker room—they texted and called. But Greg Hardy showed up.”
This is what we’re talking about when we talk about domestic violence. Hardy wasn’t born evil, and if somewhere along the line he learned that throwing a woman onto a couch full of guns, strangling her, and threatening to kill her was how you put her in her place, it still doesn’t make him a irredeemable human being, incapable of kindness or good. Nor does it make him unique; millions of people have learned similar behavior. It’s so engrained in our culture that the CDC says one in four women and one in seven men have been the victim of “severe physical violence by an intimate partner.” Between 2003 and 2012, the Bureau of Justice statistic estimates that domestic violence accounted for 21 percent of all violent crime. Most of that domestic violence happened, the same BJS report said, at the hands of current or former boyfriends or girlfriends.
I’ve known people in abusive relations, and the chances are that you have too, or that you’ve been in one. And the abuser was, very likely, the same man or woman who also brought the best potato salad to the neighborhood potluck, or made the biggest donation at church, or always picked up the kids on time from daycare: A normal person, for better and worse in varying measure, who also beats the shit out someone they said they loved.
This why there are no good answers for the NFL, because domestic violence is an everyday part of American lives, affecting far more people than Goodell’s precious Super Bowl does. One NFL advisor said as much in an interview last year with Jezebel. The entire interview is worth reading, but here’s where University of Illinois at Chicago professor Beth Richie specifically addresses why the simplest policy—simply making NFL players accused of violence go away—isn’t anything like the best:
On the one hand, we know that violence is not an isolated incident. If it happens once, it’s probably happened before; it’s going to happen again, it’s going to get worse over time. Having a policy that says that a warning is the solution ignores everything we know about domestic violence. A warning doesn’t do anything. Repeat incidents are going to happen anyway.
That’s one view. On the other hand, there are some of us who think a warning is completely sufficient. I think that we can think of a football team as a community, and if we can figure out the people with power in that community whose disapproval or witness or sanctioning will effectively change behavior—if we can identify the people whose actions will matter to the abuser, and equip them with the power to communicate that violence will not be rewarded or ignored, and have them handle it rather than say, “You’re banished forever, you’re going to prison, your short career just got much shorter”—that could be very important.
That approach would mean balancing the two most difficult things about dealing with domestic violence: first, that it’s never a one-time incident, and second, that isolating someone from their meaningful community just means that they displace their violence onto someone else. It’s incredibly hard, but between the resources of the NFL, and the expertise they’ve brought in, and the uniqueness of the institution: it will be interesting to see what we can figure out.
Richie, though, hasn’t become the face of NFL justice. It’s been Lisa Friel, a former Manhattan prosecutor, whose name pops up in many of the articles about how the NFL is getting tough. That’s no surprise. Ask any politician, and they’ll tell you that getting tough on crime is an easy sell, even if it doesn’t actually solve much.
None of this is to say we should forgive or go easy on Hardy. He is clearly unrepentant and enjoys antagonizing the media. Perhaps he doesn’t get it, or perhaps he’s learned to embrace the old cliché that all publicity is good publicity.
I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about what the NFL can do about domestic violence. And in all honestly, even my cynical heart, the heart of a reporter who has written about so many murders that I can’t tell you how many there were because you reach a point where you stop counting, the heart of a woman whose own father told her she’d get over her team’s quarterback’s horrible history because that’s how the world works, I have hope. Something has changed. The outrage at what Rice did was like nothing I’d ever seen, and the chorus of sportswriters disgusted at Hardy’s behavior is bigger and louder than anything I’ve ever heard before. This is good. Disapproval is a start.
But it’s a fool’s errand to expect moral leadership from anyone named Jones or Rooney or Mara, or anyone whose only qualification is birthright or income. We’ll stop having domestic abusers in the NFL when hiring a man who beats a woman is seen as just as poisonous as hiring a pedophile or murderer. Perhaps there’s a future where Jones doesn’t sign Hardy because he knows the public backlash and subsequent bad publicity won’t be survivable.
Getting there is no small task. But nobody said eliminating domestic violence would be easy.
Image via Getty