The NFL - Post Racial or Just Quietly Racial?
October 12, 2014
October 12, 2014
Over 65% percent of players in the National Football League (NFL) are African American; and yet, incredibly almost no questions have been openly raised about a possible linkage of race to domestic violence in the NFL. The discussion of domestic violence and the NFL started with the reaction of the NFL management to domestic violence of one of its star players. This discussion soon morphed into a discussion of the possible explanations for the apparent wave of violence that NFL players have perpetrated against their significant others. These explanations have included (1) the violent nature of football, (2) concussive brain damage suffered by players, and the susceptibility of players to a societal problem, albeit at a somewhat lower rate than that found in society at large. These explanations for domestic violence in the NFL have excluded race, although a combination of race and culture has been suggested as an explanation for one case of child abuse. The failure of the media to openly discuss a possible link between race and domestic violence does not mean that such a link is not being discussed in “the real world.” The association between race and domestic violence seems so obvious that its omission in discussions about the NFL and domestic deserves examination. The failure to openly discuss this association may only serve to reinforce underlying assumptions about African Americans and subliminally influence negative societal opinions about African Americans and add to problems such as judicial, educational, and occupational bias.
Several media outlets have published articles that reviewed the USA Today database of NFL Player Arrests although none of them mentioned that all of the 87 players arrested for domestic violence since 2000 were African American. While we know that the American justice system unfairly targets African Americans and must take these arrest data with a grain of salt, we believe these data merit discussion, if only to demonstrate their flaws. For example, did the police or the NFL keep white players who committed domestic violence from being listed and thus make white players appear less guilty of domestic violence than white population.
Besides African Americans, football is dominated by a Southern based culture. The South contributes over half of the nation’s NFL players and approximately 62% of the domestic crimes in the NFL Arrest database are from players from the South.
But, we don’t need to look just at football to see the association between the South and violence. FBI data from 2011 shows violent crime rates highest in the South when compared to other regions.
The South itself focuses on crime and punishment (very big on punishment) as their incarceration rate far exceeds other regions. (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2014).
The NFL wants to handle its problems without involving the legal system, and it seems that many Americans want the NFL to determine the punishment its members should receive. Strangely, members of Congress itself have commented on the need for the NFL to handle such domestic legal issues. The House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Democrats have demanded transparency in how the NFL was investigating Ray Rice. The women of the Senate have collectively appealed to the NFL to assure a zero tolerance policy for domestic abuse.
Roger Goodell’s primary role as Commissioner of the NFL is making the owners wealthy and defending the NFL brand by ensuring the loyalty fans. As a part of his primary role Goodell was challenged to clean up the image of the football when the arrests of players various crimes, including murder, threatened sully the NFL brand. The demand that the Commissioner handle the players’ extrajudicial sentencing as well as any subsequent appeals presupposes that he has judicial wisdom beyond the formal legal system, an assumption that seems absurd on the surface. But this notion is supported by the media, Goodell and the NFL owners, and ultimately the U.S. Congress.
In the context of our history of race relations, it is disturbing to look at what seems to be expected of Roger Goodell. He is a young white millionaire working for a group of billionaires and is asked to keep the players (largely black) “in line” and “on the line”. The billionaires make their living by the labor and risks taken by the players and Goodell has a strong incentive to keep them working. It is hard to avoid slavery era comparisons, especially when the color line in the NFL has not been subtle. In the 2013 Racial and Gender Report Card, we see that only 15% of the senior administrations are people of color. The NFL’s previous racial composition was so severely imbalanced that recent marginal decreases in the proportions of black players and marginal increases in the proportions of black executives has led to an assigned grade of B+ for improvement.
Clearly, race is not the whole story in the complex sociology of the NFL. Different factors interact with each other just as the culture of the South interacts with African American culture. But, attitudes about these factors (such as the privilege of the wealthy, white privilege, owners, management, male privilege, and sports), along with dominant ideas that we have about the athlete hero and distrust of police and courts combine to cloud our view of what the NFL should do when its talented players are accused of domestic violence.
We should examine all of these factors influence our thinking about both the NFL and its players. We should question why as a society we don’t have a stronger trust in our legal and judicial systems. We should question how the influence of brutality in football bleeds into other parts of the players’ lives. As we focus on the long term problems from concussions, we should look at the more immediate influences of training players to be brutal. And, of course, we have money in the picture – lots of money. Does the privilege of being wealthy distort the players’ judgment to feel immune from conscience, or does the wealth of the league distort the owners into considering they should protect the players and the game and not worry about their time off the field? All of these issues complicate our view.
However, we should not consider the NFL domestic abuse story without talking about race too. This avoidance of race is either because the issue is unimportant or, if it is important, that commentators are blind to it or afraid to mention it – afraid to be interpreted as racist. If race is a consideration, then our examination of the problem of domestic violence in the NFL is incomplete unless we include examination of this important sociologic factor. A common meme is that we want a national dialogue about race. But now as we look at a league that is disproportionally black and which exhibits a higher rate of a crime than expected, we shy from the discussion of race. We want to be post-racial and blind to race. The media professed shock when Obama was moved by the death of young Trayvon Martin and observed that if he’d had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. Of course he was accused of being inflammatory, instead of being empathetic (and obvious). How dare he notice that he is black? The press would like us to believe that he is blind to race and so are we Americans.