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NFL Tries to Make Amends for Domestic Violence Scandals With Super Bowl Ad

The NFL donated airtime for a public service announcement about domestic violence, part of the league's efforts to clean up its act and show it takes the issue seriously.
Image via YouTube

The National Football League hasn't exactly been a leader in the fight against domestic violence.

This year, the NFL was plagued by one scandal after the other — most infamously when former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocked his then-fiancée Janay Palmer unconscious with a punch to the face in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino. Rice initially received a meager two-game suspension for the incident.


The controversy exploded again months later when video of the punch emerged online. Only then did the league suspend Rice indefinitely, raising questions about what top officials knew about the altercation, and why they didn't act sooner. Rice has since won an appeal to reverse the suspension — but no team has dared to sign him.

For much of the year, the video of Rice's knockout punch is what came to mind when one thought of pro football and women.

Now, league officials are trying to make amends. On Sunday, squeezed between ads for cars and beers, viewers will see this commercial — and it's not for a pizza chain or a new food delivery service.

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In the video, a woman calls 911 asking for "a large with half pepperoni, half mushrooms."

"You know you've called 911, this is an emergency line," the operator replies. "Do you have an emergency or not?"

"Yes," the woman replies, indicating that she's unable to talk about why she's calling as the camera pans across a room that bears signs of a struggle.

The NFL donated the airtime for the public service announcement — which will be shown during a broadcast that attracted 111.5 million viewers last year, and where 30-second ads cost $4.5 million each. The NFL also paid for production costs, but the messaging is the work of No More, a coalition of organizations that fight domestic violence and sexual assault.


The ad — which was inspired by a real 911 call — is part of the league's efforts to clean up its act and show it takes the issue seriously after this year's scandals. The NFL has also pledged $25 million over five years to groups battling domestic violence and sexual assault.

The NFL and No More did not respond to VICE News' requests for comment, but Dawn Hudson, the league's chief marketing officer, told the Wall Street Journal"This is us trying to do the right thing."

"If my motivation was to help the brand, then I would have slapped the NFL logo on it," she added. Hudson was hired in the midst of the scandals, and took on the challenge of rebuilding the league's damaged image.

The ad is a powerful first step, advocates against domestic violence told VICE News. They mostly agreed that the move seems more genuine than smart PR spurred by the need to fix the league's image.

'This isn't an issue that's a private family matter, it's a community issue.'

"The NFL had to step up," said CarolAnn Peterson, an expert on domestic violence at The University of Southern California's School of Social Work. "And they have in essence stepped up. They are looking at policy, they are figuring out how to be consistent in terms of actions that are taken. This is just another effort to say, we get it, we understand that we screwed up and we'll do whatever we need to do to assure not only those of us that are advocates and the general public, but those who may be victims and married to NFL players that this is now gonna be taken seriously.


"The ad is going to grab people's attention because initially they're not gonna be sure what they're listening to and when people aren't sure, they have a tendency to continue to watch until they get to the end," she added. "We're hoping it's going to reach enough victims to make them able to feel that there's somebody out there."

The ad ends with the message: "When it's hard to talk, it's up to us to listen."

"If one person looks at that PSA and gets the courage to reach out to the National Domestic Violence Hotline or one of their local organizations for help or to find resources, then that campaign is successful," Cameka Crawford, chief communications officer for the hotline, told VICE News. The service received more than 377,000 "contacts" in 2014 — including calls, chats, and text messages — a 13 percent increase from the previous year.

The hotline also saw an 84 percent spike in the number of contacts right after video of Rice's punch was broadcast repeatedly on major networks, Crawford told VICE News. The group is one of many that have been in talks with the NFL, and has been a beneficiary of the league's multi-million dollar pledge.

"Honestly before the NFL stepped in with their commitment we were not able to answer 50 percent of the contacts that came in to us," she said. "The NFL is a really powerful corporation and they're in a unique position to really help shift and change the conversation about domestic violence."


The often-heard refrain that domestic abuse spikes around the Super Bowl and other major sporting events is a bit of an urban legend. Peterson said there's no data to back the claim, and Crawford said the hotline hasn't seen a spike in calls around the big game.

But bringing domestic violence and the Super Bowl together can help advocates' effort to make this a public conversation.

"There is still the conception for a lot of average Americans that what happens in your home stays in your home, that this is a private family matter, and the average person doesn't realize that this private family matter carries into our streets," Peterson said. "This isn't an issue that's a private family matter, it's a community issue."

The NFL started the campaign earlier in playoffs, airing a series of ads in partnership with No More that featured some of the League's current and former stars saying "no more" to the excuses often made for abusers, such as "But he's such a nice guy," "What was she wearing?" and "He just has a temper."

In another ad in the series, the players are just speechless — driving home the point that talking about domestic violence is hard.

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"These are such hidden issues in our culture so having an entity like the NFL that is so public and so much a part of American life for millions of people… I think they have really recognized the opportunity to do good," said Kristen Houser, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. The organization is another a beneficiary of the NFL's contribution to victim support groups.

"I'm really hopeful that it will open the door for other major corporations in America to say, 'We need to get involved too,'" Houser added, noting that a major shift in conversation on an issue long considered taboo "has already started to happen."

"There are a lot of things that are happening across the country, in states as well as at the federal level, in terms of trying to increase access to funding available to victims services," she said. "The White House has really been leading the country in pushing campus reform in terms of how campuses are responding to sexual violence and dating violence. It's been a year when we see these issues ride to the top."

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi