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Domestic Violence: NFL Battles for Its Soul

This article appeared recently in Jamie Moorhead's Sports, Business & the Law column in the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin. Here is the link to the article on the CDLB website. A subscription is required, but a free trial subscription is available.

Domestic violence has become a hot topic in the world of professional sports in the United States. With several recent domestic violence incidents, this is for good reason. The May 2nd boxing match between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao is the newest illustration, with Mayweather’s history of violent behavior thoroughly reported in the New York Times and other publications. A quick Google search provides several other recent examples.

The Statistics Cannot Be Ignored

The statistics from football, one of the four major U.S. sports, show that domestic violence has been an issue for decades. Between 1989 and 1994, 140 current and former professional or college football players were reported to police for violent acts against women, and among the 713 arrests of NFL players from 2000 to 2014, 85 were related to domestic violence. Since 2006, 34 of the league’s 57 domestic-violence incidents went undisciplined.

Up until O.J. Simpson’s arrest and trial in the mid-1990’s, domestic violence in relation to professional sports was not discussed much in the United States. For example, the National Football League historically took the position that matters away from the game that did not affect the game were not the business of the league. This head-in-the-sand approach does not work in the current world of 24-hour cable news, video cameras in phones, YouTube, and social media.

Solutions Proposed

Proposed solutions – including the proper enforcement of the rules, larger punishments, stricter rules, and better education and training – have been suggested by everyone from league officials, the government, concerned groups, and fans. The facts and circumstances of each individual case involving professional athletes have been analyzed and debated at length in the press. The U.S. Congress even jumped into the fray by holding hearings in December, 2014, and officials from the top four professional leagues in the U.S. and their players associations testified. Clearly, the time has come for the NFL and the other leagues to address domestic violence once and for all.

The NFL Example: An Inflection Point

More than any other league, the NFL appears to be at an inflection point. The NFL should be asking itself if it wants to be solely a source of entertainment, while being apathetic to the criminal and violent behavior of its athletes. The NFL could do this, but it would be viewed on par with professional boxing if it did.

The alternative is to become an organization focused on a higher ideal. If the NFL wants to be an organization that espouses such an ideal, the International Olympic Committee would be a good role model. The IOC promotes Olympism, roughly defined as ‘a philosophy of life, exalting the qualities of body, will and mind, and creating a way of life based on the value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.’

With the NFL’s recent news coverage including Tom Brady, Ray Rice, concussions, and Jameis Winston, among many other equally negative topics, the league should look long and hard at its existential purpose. Just because it may be the biggest and most profitable league today, fan interest can quickly shift to other sports.

History as a Guide

To gain further perspective on this issue, one only has to look to history. In the Roman Empire, the public loved spectator sports but had a dim view of the athletes, whom they viewed as lowly. Athletes were taken from the criminal, slave, and prisoner ranks, and free and wealthy people generally did not participate in sports because they did not want to mix with such people.

Ancient Greeks, on the other hand, looked at the athlete as a whole person. Not only did athletes have to be successful on the field, but they had to live with certain ethical, moral, and social values during the rest of their lives. The Greeks did not respect athletes who did not succeed in all aspects of life. The Greeks’ word for this was ‘kalokagathia’, which meant both athletic and intellectual excellence.

If history is a guide, it should be noted that the Greek perspective largely exists intact within the International Olympic Committee, while the Roman view has been largely sidelined by modern society.

The Way Forward

The NFL and other professional sports leagues in the United States need to do two things in order to move forward successfully. First, they must address domestic violence in a sincere and thorough way, and there has been much guidance offered in the media on how to do this. Second, the leagues must decide who they are and what they stand for. A league that solely serves as an entertainment outlet without offering more may soon see itself irrelevant in a society that now can see the whole athlete on YouTube, warts and all.

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