I’ve always had this Pollyannaish theory that a highly publicized rash of bad behavior can create such a groundswell of disgust that we are compelled as a society to face issues that should have been addressed long before. Certainly the despicable behavior of many Southerners in the 1950s and ‘60s was so outrageous that we were forced to confront racial prejudice. Obviously we still have a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way since then. That’s when television came of age, night after night showing the ugliness of Jim Crow and the racists who viciously resisted any change.
Similarly, the bizarre nomination hearings for aspiring Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas put an unavoidable spotlight on sexual harassment, and that led to significant improvements in the workplace. Again, as we’re constantly reminded, this is still a dicey problem, but at least the office sleazebag has to worry about being dragged up to HR.
So it is with domestic abuse. After trying as hard as it could to avoid the brutality displayed by too many of its football players off-field, the NFL is (appropriately) being dragged kicking and screaming into facing up to the sad issue of violence against women and children. Finally, after eons of battering that was simply accepted, the incredibly clumsy way the Ray Rice case was handled has caused us to face the horror of this scourge at last.
For those who have just come back from Mars and haven’t heard of Ray Rice, he’s the Baltimore Ravens star who was taped moving his unconscious future wife on the floor off an elevator. League Commissioner Roger Goodell’s response? A two-game suspension … far less than what would be levied against a player caught abusing illegal drugs or steroids. Apparently, human abuse was considered less egregious by Goodell, at least until he was greeted by a public uproar. It got louder after the emergence of another video that showed Rice actually slugging his then-fiancee into unconsciousness, and suddenly we’re finally talking about the way some men do violence against those who are weaker.
By the way, Rice’s fiancee became his wife, which points out another societywide problem: The adult victims are often the enablers, to the point that many women around the country are, incredibly, siding with Ray Rice. Similarly, the physical punishment another NFL star, Adrian Peterson, meted out to his son (hitting him with a switch till he bled; Peterson called it a “whooping”) has ignited a fiery debate about battering children. In this case, a Texas prosecutor has called Peterson’s behavior something else: a crime, and Goodell has another problem with one of his stars to finesse.
Remember that this is the same league that refuses to get involved in the controversy over the name of its Washington franchise, which is a racial slur, so if you’re looking for Goodell and his collection of team owners to do right, don’t hold your breath, unless all this starts costing them money because people contemptuously stop watching their games.
The NFL is hoping the controversy dies down, that we forget about it. It’s not bad crisis-management strategy, but we can’t let that happen. Violent abuse, particularly against women and children, isn’t allowed. No hitting or rough treatment. Period. And sure as can be, someone will ask what happens if a woman or child threatens dire harm or death. Then, obviously, do what it takes to stop that, but we first must do away with the belief that violence is an acceptable way to impose one’s will on loved ones … or even unloved ones.
It would seem to be an obvious proposition, but it isn’t. This is the time to change, while the discussions ignited by these ugly incidents are still simmering. In that way, we can turn a terrible wrong into a right: the right of anyone to not be violently bullied.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.