Are You Not Entertained?: How Should NFL Fans Respond to Off-the-Field Violence?

In the days leading up to this year’s Super Bowl, journalists pondered whether the NFL’s drive to increase revenue might come at the cost of squeezing out the NFL’s broadest fan base. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell enticed owners back in 2010 with the goal of tripling league revenue to $25 billion by 2027. As USA Today reported, that would put the NFL among the ranks of McDonald’s, Nike, and Goodyear Tire. In lamenting this trend and the cost-hikes shouldered by fans, one sports economics professor lamented, “Nothing is really sacred anymore.”

$4 million 30-second commercial spots, $295 replica jerseys, and $14 beers aren’t exactly testing the limits of sanctity, at least not relative to some other things being squeezed out in this crusade to expand the NFL’s entertainment empire.

Like morals.

This past Friday, Roger Goodell held a news conference to promise that the NFL will get its house in order. This was held in the wake of the NFL mishandling a series of personal conduct issues with its players, the worst of which include domestic abuse and child abuse.

But it’s clear that Roger Goodell, who apparently still has the support of team owners (still dreaming about that $27 billion in revenue?), does not believe any of this should cost him his job.

Initially, after the NFL learned that Ray Rice hit his then fiancée, Janay Palmer, Rice was suspended for two games. After video of Rice’s punch (in a casino elevator) went viral, the punishment was changed to an indefinite suspension, although the players’ association is challenging the league’s latest ruling for violating double-jeopardy.

Adrian Peterson, who is charged with child abuse after using a switch on his son as a form of punishment for misbehavior, was deactivated for one game, but after his Vikings team lost 30-7 to the Patriots, he was reinstated. It was only after fans, sponsors, and Minnesota’s governor protested that Peterson was again deactivated by the Vikings.

And although these cases are particularly heartbreaking, they are but two in a litany of stories on the havoc and abuse caused by professional athletes’ violence off the field.

Football is a violent sport. The violence of the NFL is part of the spectacle. And even though some are paying more attention to the consequences of this in-game violence, these off-the-field issues shouldn’t be eclipsed by the entertaining buzz of game highlights, fan loyalty, and player adoration – and certainly not the powerful undercurrent of trying to minimize negative publicity in order to fan the fire of increasing revenue.

These stories are initiating important conversations. Some focus on football and explore the links between violence on the field and violence off the field. Others debate the line between discipline and violence, especially in light of parental rights for raising one’s children (Fox News ran the benign headline, “Did Vikings Star Adrian Peterson Cross Corporal Punishment Line?”). We should be talking about the differences between discipline and abuse, especially when – even after horrific images surfaced of the wounds to Peterson’s four-year-old-son on his buttocks and thigh – some continue to defend Peterson, like Fox’s Sean Hannity. But we need to be clear that what Peterson did was not a spanking, even though some continue to justify the lessons they learned from being spanked.

These conversations have tied together issues of religion, race, and culture. Charles Barkley made headlines for defending Peterson and implicating black and Southern families as participating in and passing on a culture of corporal punishment. Thankfully, former Vikings player Cris Carter pointed out that just because he endured certain behaviors as a child that doesn’t mean he’s powerless when it comes to repeating them as a parent himself. Even more eloquently, Khadijah Costley White, a professor at Rutgers University, is working to unmask “misogyny and abuse in this rhetoric of cultural rights.” We cannot be complicit in the white-washing of abuse, whether it is the abuse of spouses, partners, children, animals, or any other forms of abuse.

Moreover, we need to talk about the spectacle of violence parading around on a football field. And how this informs cultural values of masculinity. As well as the messages we send our boys on what it means to become a man. And certainly what kinds of responsibilities fans have to the game – and players – they love, and vice-versa. After all, there would be no NFL without its fans; as Louisa Thomas recently wrote for Grantland, “Together we make football.”

It should be said that this is not a problem that is exclusive to professional football. But one of the reasons why this needs to be addressed is because of the precedent being set about how player misconduct should be handled. There are too many painful cases to cite, from the allegations against Florida State’s Jameis Winston to the crimes of Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky, where assault and abuse have been largely ignored or entirely covered up to protect a player or program from falling into disgrace (and losing revenue for the respective program, to boot). There are even cases of high school football players implicated in sexual assault in which their interest and “promising future” – rather than that of the victims of the assault – have gotten preferential treatment (as Meghan Clark has pointed out). If professional athletes commit such egregious offenses and receive a slap on the wrist, why wouldn’t younger male athletes come to expect the same? Empire breeds entitlement.

I find it sadly ironic that for most of the first half of 2014, the most controversial story in the NFL was that former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam announced he was gay before the NFL draft. Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the last round of the draft, but cut from the team before the start of the regular season. Sam – since signed to the Cowboys practice squad – was labeled a “distraction,” and pundits debated how the NFL could avoid a “culture war” by including an openly gay player on one of its teams. The NFL predictably fumbled this opportunity to advance civil rights, tolerance, and respect. While the reaction to Sam was not as negative as some anticipated, we still witnessed a culture of machismo, homophobia, and revenue-boosting self-interest. That same culture might be the NFL’s undoing as America’s greatest sports empire, unless it can change the attitudes, actions, habits, and systems that serve as such vile propaganda for this vicious vision of manhood.

The problem with empire is that, according to Joerg Rieger, it “wants to shape everything – not just economics and politics. It wants to shape what you believe.”

Empire is seductive and the entertainment empire of the NFL wants us to believe that this is all harmless sport worth every dollar and every minute we spend on it. But, as Reiger notes, when faced with the overpowering influence of empire, there are only two options: acquiescence or resistance. Jesus resisted empire. His teaching and healing ministry critiqued the powerful and prioritized the most vulnerable. If we take that example seriously today, we ought to be deeply dissatisfied with the NFL’s brand of entertainment, its handling of abuse, and the messages it is sending about the value of women and children. We ought to be clear that people are more important than profit, and that it is utterly unconscionable to build an empire at the expense of the dignity and rights of women and children.

If we took this seriously, perhaps we’d disrupt the flow of revenue that’s funding this empire, and thereby prove that it’s not actually true that “nothing is really sacred anymore.”