Can These Women Fix the NFL?

Or will the NFL fix them?

Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
It’s unclear from canned statements whether the NFL even recognizes that the league has a domestic violence problem.

Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

On Monday—after weathering harsh criticism for its limp response to domestic violence charges against Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson—the NFL announced that it has begun to seek assistance for its domestic violence problem by enlisting actual domestic violence experts. The league has boosted Anna Isaacson, the NFL’s VP of community relations and philanthropy, to take on an expanded role as vice president of social responsibility, where she’ll oversee “the development of the full range of education, training and support programs relating to domestic violence, sexual assault, and matters of respect.” And the league has brought on three more seasoned professionals to consult on the effort: Lisa Friel (who spent 28 years as a prosecutor focusing on sex crimes in New York City), Jane Randel (who has worked with companies like Liz Claiborne to combat domestic violence since the ’90s and co-founded the national “No More” campaign in 2009), and Rita Smith (who spent more than 20 years as an advocate with the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence).

I reached out to the league, hoping to interview its newly minted consultants, but got only canned statements in return. The statements don’t recognize that the NFL has a domestic violence problem—just that the league is now part of the solution. “The opportunity we have to make change is tremendous, and the NFL has said it is committed to getting this right,” Randel’s statement read. “I am honored and privileged to play a role in what I hope will indeed be a watershed moment for domestic violence and sexual assault in this country.” Smith’s said: “I am excited about the change we can make together, and have no doubt this work will save lives and change the culture of how we think about these issues.”

A few minutes after serving up the statements, the NFL’s rep asked me to use an updated version of Randel’s quote, which excised one sentence from her initial remarks. That sentence read: “We know that this culture change will be messy and difficult, but if we do not take this opportunity now, we may never get it again.”

Apparently, acknowledging that reforming the NFL’s approach to domestic violence—a reform that will supposedly revolutionize American culture—will be a “messy” and “difficult” process is a little too pessimistic. (The NFL rep told me that Randel asked to cut the line because she was worried it might be “misconstrued.”) As for VP Isaacson, in “lieu of comment from Anna,” a flack told me, I should instead refer to a Monday memo released by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell himself.

Meanwhile, Anheuser-Busch, the NFL’s official beer peddler—which has paid $1.2 billion over six years for that privilege—released a statement on Tuesday saying that it is “disappointed and increasingly concerned” by incidents of domestic violence committed by NFL players and is “not yet satisfied” with the league’s response. As Barry Petchesky notes at Deadspin, these are heated words from a sponsor: “Anything less than full support is, in the couched language of sponsorship diplomacy, a rebuke.” Compared with the statements released by the NFL’s recently hired domestic violence advocates, the company’s dissatisfaction is positively refreshing. At least the Bud brewer’s concern is “increasing” while the advocates’ concerns appear muffled upon their absorption into the league.

Of course, what Isaacson, Friel, Randel, and Smith are saying behind closed doors might be a lot more critical of the NFL. And Randel was right when she framed the opportunity to counsel the NFL on domestic violence as a once-in-a-lifetime shot. As executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Smith spent decades working to establish October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month, only to see the cause overshadowed by breast cancer awareness’ omnipresent pink. Last year, Smith told The Cut’s Ann Friedman that she realized that breast cancer awareness had won in 2009 when she turned on a football game and “noticed—as if it were possible not to—that the players were newly outfitted in pink socks and gloves,” Friedman writes.

The NFL’s considerable resources and massive platform can make or break social justice movements. So when the league invested in breast cancer in a big way, it meant that domestic violence awareness had lost the opportunity to not only reach American football fans, but even raise awareness among Americans that month at all. “I was pretty sure we were toast,” Smith told Friedman at the time. “There was no way we were ever gonna match them.” One year ago, NCADV settled for an October partnership with Valeant Pharmaceuticals, which sells its Mecidis cosmetics and Obagi skin care products almost exclusively to women, and not too many of them, either. If gaining a measure of influence over America’s leading purveyor of toxic masculinity requires praising the league in public, then so be it.

So now the question is: Can this transaction work? Kim Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, told me that she reached out to the league soon after the Rice incident broke to lend her expertise, and didn’t hear back for months. Then, Goodell called her out of the blue, spent an hour asking her questions about the dynamics of domestic violence and the failure of his own response, and solicited detailed critiques on how the league can improve going forward. Gandy, who is not being paid by the NFL, came away “impressed” by the sincerity of his commitment, she told me. She thinks activists have every reason to be optimistic about the partnership. “The NFL is presenting the opportunity to use their influence to help change the culture around masculinity and violence,” she says. “I can’t think of any entity in the country that could be more powerful in accomplishing that.”

Still, it’s hard not to be cynical about the NFL’s efforts when women on the NFL payroll announce, through a league flack, that the NFL now takes domestic violence seriously. “I think we always have to be skeptical,” says Teresa Younger, CEO of the Ms. Foundation for Women, which is not working directly with the NFL on the issue. “If they were really, truly committed to this, they wouldn’t have waited until the past few weeks to do it.” Outside advocates are “still waiting for the NFL to step up and lend its voice to a conversation,” Younger told me. “It would be OK, and genuine, for them to say that they don’t have all the answers. But right now, they’re not even fielding the questions.”