Throwing the Flag on the NFL:
Responding to power and domestic violence in the NFL
In 2014, Ray Rice snapped up headlines after a video of him punching his fiancé in a casino elevator was picked up by news outlets. This, along with child abuse allegations against Adrian Peterson, dominated news feeds, setting off a chain reaction of articles and news segments about violence, power, race, gender, institutional politics, and more. How do Christian leaders talk to young people in the middle of all of the media noise? In this issue of Engage, three voices respond to the headlines.
Maria Dixon Hall
The Rev. Dr. Maria A. Dixon is Associate Professor and Director of Communication Studies at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. More of her musings on the Church, race, gender, and politics can be found at her Patheos.com blog, entitled “The View from DixonHall.”
Maria Dixon Hall
In his description of the ontology of man, theorist Kenneth Burke 1 posited the following: “Man is a symbol-using animal, inventor of the negative, separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, goaded by the spirit of hierarchy and rotten with perfection.” For Burke, humans remained the only member of creation that could utilize symbols to cement meaning for posterity; create the reality of the negative in a world full of only positives; and to order themselves in a moral world that held standards of perfection far beyond their reach. Burke argued that our desire for perfection creates an inherent tension for people in the drama of life.
Burke surmises that the drama of human life is filled entirely by our attempts to resolve the tension of imperfection by assigning blame for the failure to reach the ideal. Guilt redemption, as Burke terms it, is the ultimate motivation of all human action-“How do I cleanse myself of this guilt (tension, anxiety, shame, outrage, etc.) for actions I have or have not taken that prevent me from the ideal of the perfect life?”
When we are violated, Burke says, we must, for our sanity engage in scapegoating—for we must blame someone (other than ourselves) for the failure to live up to a communal moral code. Interestingly while actual innocence or guilt is beside the point in determining our villain, all that matters is that we have someone upon whom we can place our collective sin.
If we are honest with ourselves, for too long, the NFL, BCS, and athletes in general have served not only as our gladiators of entertainment but as our necessary cultural scapegoats. Domestic Violence? Throw the book at them. Sexual assault? Throw the book at them and throw away the key. Lying to protect their organizational and fiduciary interests? Burn in hell!
Our media culture has drawn a dotted line for our moral outrage to find a target in a workforce comprised mainly of uneducated, bulky, single mother raised, with the accompanying pathologies, African American men. The facts that they always leave out — that over 50% of these men has college degrees, live strong lives of integrity, and emerge from middle class backgrounds — are simply inconvenient.
You see, throwing a flag on the NFL allows us to color our outrage so that we can pretend that it only happens to those people and not solid, decent, Christian folks (read white folks). Focusing on the NFL also allows us to gender the conversation allowing us to silence the 3 million men who are beaten by the women in their lives, yet because of the stigma suffer in a silence for whom no one speaks.
Throw a flag on the NFL? Nah, I have another call—Illegal substitution.
1. See Kenneth Burke’s A Rhetoric of Motives (1950)
(Cue the announcer’s voice) “Oh no, it looks like there has been a flag thrown. This could be bad, viewers… a flag has been thrown for the offense of tolerating domestic violence. We’re going to take a short break to see exactly how officials are going to penalize the league.” …. and cut!
Yes, a flag has been thrown at the NFL in the proverbial sense, because of what most people can plainly see: a culture of tolerating domestic violence… even worse, for blaming the victim. Maybe this time the penalty will be severe enough to force a correction of behavior.
Look, most of us have seen more than enough of the security video of Ray Rice punching his then-girlfriend (now his wife) into unconsciousness, and we have all had our fill of commentators keeping a straight face while suggesting that the Rice incident couldn’t have been so bad if she married the guy, right? Well, I say that is completely wrong!
The NFL, sadly, is one of the most influential organizations in the United States, and unfortunately, they have abdicated their social and civic responsibility to lead. Never mind how much revenue is generated by their televised, quasi-gladiatorial spectacles, and never mind how much charitable work is done by the League. The fact remains that the NFL teaches… yes, teaches people, mostly men, that domestic violence against women is alright, and they do this simply by doing very little when an employee has committed crimes of this nature. This is nothing new. NFL players, time and again, have been involved in domestic violence incidents and received minimal punishments while often remaining heroic in the eyes of their fans.
So, how does this equate to perpetuating a culture of domestic violence? It is all about example. NFL players are popular, wealthy, athletic, and larger-than-life. So when little boys and young men see what these guys do, they emulate it. You’ve seen it, right? From high-fives, to end zone celebration dances, from styles of dress, to behavior in night clubs, and to the beer they drink, American men are influenced and so are their children. The NFL teaches us, by example, that punching your wife and knocking her out cold is ok, and that we should never have to pay a price for that crime.
It doesn’t stop there, though, and the NFL is only one face of the problem. Domestic violence affects every segment of our society. Women, children, and the elderly can all be victims of abuse. Not only are all sorts of people physically hurt by domestic violence, they are also victimized by the things that they witness. Everyone who witnesses domestic violence is scarred by it. The hurt is real, and it can last a lifetime.
As a career law enforcement officer, youth worker, father of two daughters, and a follower of Christ, I am dead-set against ignoring or tolerating domestic violence.
As a society, we must do better.
I have been a die-hard NFL fan since 2007, when I was living near Indianapolis, and Sunday afternoons were scheduled around watching Peyton Manning humble all his opponents. Even while living overseas, I found ways to watch games online, play fantasy football, and host Super Bowl breakfasts. I am not blind to the various scandals that have risen around the NFL over the last few years, from concussions to drug suspensions, and most recently the debacle that has been the NFL’s handling of domestic violence charges.
There are lots of places that blame has been laid in recent weeks over the NFL’s handling of the charges against Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Adrian Peterson, and others. The individual teams have been criticized for caring more about wins than victims. There have been calls for the commissioner’s resignation. Some have even hypothesized that the sport itself leads to off-field violence. 1
In the aftermath of videos, police reports, and judges’ rulings, we are left with the finger pointing and scapegoating that have accompanied sin since the Garden of Eden. At once, we are confronted with the reality of the brokenness of individuals, institutions, and our culture as a whole. We are so outraged by the NFL’s response to individuals’ crimes because we have forgotten that institutions themselves are fallen. In this case, the NFL has a stated goal of attracting an audience for the best sports entertainment in the world. This institutional mission and vision, of increasing wealth and entertainment, inherently distorts the judgment of right and wrong. Meanwhile, our outrage and desire to blame the NFL are ways that we hide behind the fact that we ourselves are part of a culture which enables domestic violence through victim-shaming, and warped views of power and control.
And yet, it is only in this recognition of the pervasiveness of sin in all domains of the world — not just individual hearts, but throughout all creation and all created things — that we can recognize and give thanks for God’s grace and redemption. In the face of cultural and institutional sin, we can rejoice that Christ’s saving work was not only for individual lives, but for the world at large. As Abraham Kuyper wrote, “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’ ” 2
We have the opportunity to join God’s redeeming work of grace in the world, share God’s good news with individuals who are hurting, work for justice and redemption in our local and national communities, and bear God’s grace to the institutions we find ourselves within, whether the NFL, the church, or businesses.
2. Kuyper, Abraham (1998). “Sphere Sovereignty”. In Bratt, James D. Abraham Kuyper, A Centennial Reader. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. p. 488.
- What is the interplay between power and violence in stories like these? What other stories come to mind?
- Is this, as Maria Dixon Hall claims, using athletes as scapegoats?
- Should the NFL be held accountable for the egregious actions of its players?
- Why do you think domestic violence seems prevalent among athletes? Do you think this problem is pervasive elsewhere?
- How should Christians who are NFL players respond to these stories?
- Is it right for Christians to follow the NFL in light of an apparent culture of domestic violence?