Thoughts on the NFL, Domestic Abuse Culture, and How I'm Explaining It All to My Son

As a father and a football fan, I’ve reached a crossroads. My son is in sixth grade, and I find myself having to perform the all too common task of explaining horrible behavior in the personal lives of NFL players. The incessant media coverage of domestic abuse among NFL players makes it virtually impossible to avoid. The latest example, involving former Giants kicker Josh Brown, has left a particularly bad taste in my mouth. I have lots of thoughts on what I think he should have said.

Before that, though, I have to express my extreme discomfort in getting involved in any player’s personal life. I’m old school enough to default to the setting that what happens off the field is none of anybody’s business. You’re a pro, and if you show up and dominate on Sunday, that’s all that matters. I’m not comfortable with gotcha journalism that seeks to destroy men who achieve. The arrest rates for domestic abuse among professional athletes are slightly lower than those for society as a whole. The sports media complex holds players to a higher standard, if only because tearing them down in the face of a mistake is good for ratings. And yet, some of the behavior has been so unacceptable—and so widely covered in our never satiated news consumption—that it needs to come with some sort of disclaimer.

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that watching the NFL these days has been less fulfilling, less compelling, less joyful. The ratings prove it, as Stephen Kruiser tells us. He notes that Roger Goodell’s constant interference in the game of football is a major reason. I would add that Goodell’s inconsistent interference is what is really driving viewership down. We can’t tell what a catch is. The rules have become too complicated. I said two years ago that the VP of Officiating in the NFL should be replaced.

Perhaps the biggest factor for me is the inconsistent enforcement of arbitrary rules. Tom Brady almost goes to the Supreme Court before accepting a four-game suspension for deflated footballs, but Giants kicker Josh Brown gets a single game suspension for an egregious case of continued domestic violence. Ravens halfback Ray Rice was originally given a two-game suspension for domestic violence, but when video of the incident surfaced, he was essentially banned for life, despite there being no new information. Greg Hardy was given another chance last year, after his conviction for beating his girlfriend literally from head to toe was overturned.

All this controversy, of course, keeps the letters N, F, and L in the forefront of media coverage. Pretty convenient when the offseason lasts from February through August, during which time there is seemingly nothing for the media to cover.

I just don’t think it adds to the joy of watching football.

This is a massive disappointment to me. I’m a huge fan of real football. American football. Not futbol, with its fake injuries, flopping, and use of the word nil in scoring. Jack Lambert. Dick Butkus. Larry Csonka. John Riggins. REAL football. My dad took me to San Diego Chargers practices when I was two years old, and I’ve been a fan of the team ever since. I came of age in the years of Air Coryell, Dan Fouts, and Kellen Winslow. Among my fondest memories of childhood are watching the Doug Flutie Hail Mary game against the Miami Hurricanes, and the Chargers playoff game in Miami in 1981—the single greatest football game I ever saw.


All that said, I’m still a fan—but it’s becoming more difficult. Former Giants kicker Josh Brown is the latest in a long line of high profile domestic abuse cases in the NFL that really reveal that the league is only paying lip service to these issues. Like the Ray Rice incident (in which the NFL KNEW he had hit his wife in an elevator in an argument and then dragged her unconscious body out of the elevator, and shouldn’t have needed video of the incident to act), Josh Brown’s actions were no secret. To be fair, Brown sounds like a deeply disturbed individual who is being contrite and admitting his mistakes. That doesn’t excuse the NFL or the Giants, who had every fact available to them before signing a player that violated their own league rules.

So how do I explain this to my son? First, I tell him that today’s NFL corporate compliance lawyer culture is destroying the league. But I also have to remind him that beating women and treating them like crap is not a good thing. Pretty sure he has that part down already, but a good reminder is always helpful. These people are not role models, and nobody should think otherwise. They are players who are valued for what talent they can bring to your favorite team, the heroics on the field—and that’s it.

And I’m quite done with the sanitary, crisis management, consultant/lawyer-written non-apologies by these players. If they even issue an apology (counter to the advice of the player’s union and their agent), you don’t have to listen too hard to realize that they’re not willing to accept personal responsibility for their personal actions. The most common phrases in these apologies is, “I am sorry if I hurt anybody” and “I’m sorry if I let my fans down.” The crisis management apology directed at a pampered player’s sponsors and charitable foundation doesn’t actually say anything—it just gives board members an out when they’re called out for continuing to deal with somebody like that.

So I’ve tried to explain to my son a couple of things:

One, treat the women in your life with the utmost respect. Being a dirtbag is not acceptable in any form. Just because Greg Hardy had his conviction overturned doesn’t mean he’s innocent. He’s simply not guilty under our system of jurisprudence. C.S. Lewis best defined integrity as doing the right thing, even when nobody is watching (or the modern day corollary, even if your lawyer can get you off).

Two, if you make a mistake, own up to it. Don’t lie, don’t cover up, don’t deflect, don’t minimize the damage, don’t avoid your own responsibility, don’t obfuscate. Apologize, and mean it. Apologize directly to those you hurt. Make a sincere vow to make it right, and live up to your word.

Finally, be the example of how to behave in civil society. Don’t let yourself get drawn into the muck. We can and we should be better than that.

Maybe I’ll just spend less time on my fantasy football team, and more time throwing an actual football around with my son.