Friday, January 23, 2015
by Roger Abrams, Richardson Professor of Law, Northeastern University, guest contributor
The National Football League’s 2014-15 season is nearing its close with the Super Bowl scheduled for February 1. However that game comes out, it will be overshadowed in the history of this season by the League’s halting approach to domestic violence committed by its players. The arch villain – but certainly not the only offender – was Ray Rice, a former running back for the Baltimore Ravens.
Rice’s story has become very well known. Rice brutally attacked his fianceé in the elevator of an Atlantic City hotel. It became headline news as the League struggled to determine how it should respond to the incident. In retrospect, it seems clear that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did not appreciate the public impact of the misconduct. He later admitted that his initial two-game suspension of Rice was an “error.”
Shortly after Goodell administered the discipline, the full tape of what happened inside that elevator became public. That disclosure sealed the public debate. The National Football League – a ten billion dollar a year enterprise – would have to regroup. Even the most prosperous business can lose its credibility quickly.
In an effort to stem the bad publicity, Goodell reversed course. He suspended Rice indefinitely and then attempted to reform football’s image. The League had already faced the awful reality that the men who played the game were more than likely to suffer repeated concussions, leading to dementia and other causes of early death. As a result of the Rice incident, the public became aware that some NFL players were prone to commit violent domestic acts. Goodell finally – some would say belatedly – went on the public record about the evils of domestic violence. So far, he has appointed several women to the top level of the League’s administration and authorized a television campaign against domestic violence using public service advertisements. Only time will tell whether these cosmetic changes will alter the environment that produced Ray Rice.
The public furor over the events involving Rice has finally abated, but the conditions that bred the dysfunction remain much alive. In fact, some research has suggested that players suffering severe head injuries become more prone to committing domestic abuse. The policies of the National Football League are now more attuned to the public’s rightful concerns. We know, however, that incidents like Ray Rice’s will not be stopped by public service announcements and six-game suspensions.
Each year the National Football League replenishes itself through the college draft. Each club has the opportunity to evaluate potential talent on the field, but this year it must also judge how potential draftees will behave off the field. Jameis Winston, the quarterback from Florida State University, has allegedly engaged in off-field behavior that should give any club pause before using its top draft choice to add him to the squad. However, few are optimistic that the Rice incident will have any impact on the draft selections.
The National Football League – our favorite sports entertainment by far – is on probation in the public’s mind. Immense popularity is not eternal. Goodell may have saved the business for now, but future challenges await.