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The NFL's Domestic Violence Problem and Our Race Problem

Football, because it employs so many black men and is so popular, reflects a skewed racialized image of violence back into our society.
Photo by Jake Roth/USA TODAY Sports. Edited.

Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, Ray McDonald, Jonathan Dwyer.

We know what connects these men. They are all professional football players at the center of a national conversation about domestic and interpersonal violence. It is a conversation that has touched on the personal responsibility of the players, the corporate responsibility of the league, the role of the criminal justice system, the omnipresence of these forms of violence in our society, and the question of what can be done to prevent this violence—as well as who should be charged with spearheading that prevention.


There is another thing that connects all of these men: they are all black. This is not a surprise given that roughly two-thirds of the players in the league are black. If we are talking about NFL players, odds are, we are talking about black men. These particular men happen to be playing in America's most popular and lucrative sports league, where behavior off the field is always news.

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There's a reason race matters here. We have a long history in this country of tying blackness to criminality (and vice versa) in ways that have devastating effects in real life:

African Americans make up 13% of the general US population, yet they constitute 28% of all arrests, 40% of all inmates held in prisons and jails, and 42% of the population on death row. In contrast, Whites make up 67% of the total US population and 70% of all arrests, yet only 40% of all inmates held in state prisons or local jails and 56% of the population on death row.

We find it easy to talk about crime, especially crime as a problem within our larger society, when we have a black person in the role of perpetrator. It's comfortable for us.

Even if "arrest rates among NFL players are quite low compared to national averages for men in their age range," as Benjamin Morris has recently argued, and violent crimes are committed throughout our entire society, their status as public figures means that NFL players will be held up as examples of these particular crimes. But that is misleading.


Donald McPherson, a social justice activist and former NFL player, believes that "[Rice's] violence has nothing to do with the fact he played football. If it did, it wouldn't explain all the other violence in our society. How does it explain the accountant up the street from me who is beating up his wife?" Mariame Kaba, an anti-violence organizer who founded the Chicago Taskforce on Violence Against Girls & Young Women, agrees. "We live in a highly violent country," she told me. "Violence is the natural state of things in our country. To talk about 'non-violence' is to talk about something we have to consciously think about, work towards, make happen." Football, then, is a microcosm of what is all around us, just not in the way Roger Goodell meant it when he said exactly that in his last press conference on the Ray Rice case.

Photo by Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY Sports. Edited.

Football, because it employs so many black men and is so popular, reflects a skewed racialized image of violence back into our society. Ben Carrington, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas who specializes in sports and race, told me that often "race is the trigger for society to express their moral outrage about another issue." (In this case, interpersonal and domestic violence.) In fact, he says, when a crime is perpetrated by black people, that "helps to make us more angry because of what [the alleged perpetrators] look like." Kaba echoed this. She told me she's "dubious to the reaction to [these cases] versus the reaction to white men in the league who commit violence," because when it is black men we are discussing, there are implications of these men being "inherently violent," and that makes for an easy leap to "they should be locked up, we need to manage and control them."


Carrington traces this outlier status of black athletes within sport, even in a league where they are a majority, to the history of integration of sports in this country. He says that black athletes—ever since Jack Johnson became the first black heavyweight champion in 1908—have been painted as "angry, rebellious, violent, uncontrollable." There is no way "to decouple this wider, complex history," of how black male athletes are discussed with "questions of discipline," Carrington told me. Sydette Harry, a writer and theorist who often interrogates the intersection of race and gender in our culture, notes that players like Ben Roethlisberger, while punished by the league, are still playing. But more than that, Harry notes, Roethlisberger's case did not lead to a "big push to address the problem," of sexual assault. For example, Frank Deford responded to the Roethlisberger case by asking, "Don't you just want to say, 'Let the thugs play'?" Indeed, given that Roethlisberger is now mentioned in an NFL Shop commercial, in which a mother says, "after years of eating Roethlis-burgers, my son, Dan, became a fan of the guy, too." Dan is shown multiple times in his Roethlisberger jersey.

It is not just that black men become the face of a crime that they are demographically and statistically not the main perpetrators of, however. It is also that race has been ignored with regard to the women who are victims of this violence. The NFL announced last week that they had hired three outside experts in domestic violence to serve as senior advisors to "help lead and shape the NFL's policies and programs relating to domestic violence and sexual assault." These advisors are all white women. There was immediately push back from black women, including the Black Women's Roundtable who published an open letter to the league. (They will soon meet with two senior NFL executives.) Feminista Jones, a mental health social worker and writer, wrote a piece for TIME recently laying out the disparities: "Black women are almost three times as likely to experience death as a result of DV/IPV than White women. And while Black women only make up 8% of the population, 22% of homicides that result from DV/IPV happen to Black Women and 29% of all victimized women, making it one of the leading causes of death for Black women ages 15 to 35." Harry says the failure to hire a black woman to an advisory role around these issues—especially since the victim everyone is discussing right now is Janay Rice, a black woman—is worrisome for her because it makes us question "who is being helped by this change?" Based on how little black women are already helped by domestic violence prevention efforts, it appears, Harry says, that proposed NFL efforts are about "protecting a specific population," that does not include black women.

Jones told me that she was disappointed in the lack of diversity among the NFL advisors. Not only that they are all white, but that they are all women. After all, not all victims are women, and what's more, all of the players the NFL is trying to educate about domestic violence prevention are men. McPherson says that leadership on this issue has to come from other men, "for men to give other men permission to move beyond gendered roles in society. To say, 'You can play football and be a loving, caring, empathetic person off the field.'" By hiring only women, McPherson sees a ghettoization of the problem into one that is only "a woman's issue." He pointed to the ridiculously arrogant press conference given by Ravens' owner Steve Bisciotti on the Ray Rice case as an example. According to USA Today, "As Bisciotti himself acknowledged when asked why the Ravens never saw that horrible tape of Ray Rice knocking his now-wife unconscious in a casino elevator, 'I wasn't concerned or interested enough to demand it. It never even crossed my mind.'"

But Bisciotti and other NFL owners can be arrogant and dismissive because they face few real consequences. Harry says that we must pay attention to the financial power structure in the NFL, the "front office vs. the playing talent." "NFL players," she notes, "make fractions of the money" that owners or even Roger Goodell do. Kaba says that the focus on the criminality of black players, renders the truth about who controls the league nearly invisible. "Who has power in the league?" she asks. "White owners." Owners who Goodell directly answers to, who hire and could fire the commissioner. Owners who, through their commissioner, often function paternalistically as, Carrington argues, "the good upstanding white men who have come to protect us" from bad players; though Bisciotti showed how the privilege of being an insanely wealthy white man also lends one immense protection to do or say whatever.

This conversation is complicated. It's about football but also so much more. It's about individual actions but also systemic problems. It's about violence but also how we see and then talk about that violence. All of it matters if we are going to have a complete, honest conversation about a problem that goes much deeper than the NFL.