fb-pixel Skip to main content

NFL can’t afford to fumble now

By Adrian Walker

Globe Staff

Dan Lebowitz has watched with dismay as the lords of pro football have tied themselves up in knots over their inept handling of domestic violence cases involving their players.

America's favorite sport has turned into a nightmare, the action on the field overshadowed in recent weeks by terrible behavior off of it. Many observers have called for the firing of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell over his handling of allegations of violence by players against women in their lives.

Lebowitz runs the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. The title of the program doesn't really convey all that it does. One of its major activities is counseling teams and sports leagues on how to deal with social issues that overlap with sports.

Domestic violence is such an issue, and Sport in Society has done some work with the NFL, so Lebowitz seemed like a person who might have some useful advice.


Lebowitz began by stressing that this problem is broader than sports, by which he meant it isn't useful to act as though football players are necessarily more prone to awful behavior than anyone else.

"There has to be an appreciation for kindness, compassion, and respect for women," Lebowitz said. In other words, teach all men that hitting their wives, girlfriends, or children is not acceptable, and it will stop happening in the NFL, too.

Friday, Goodell held a widely scorned press conference. He was contrite, and promised changes, but he gave almost no hint of what he actually plans to do. "We have to do better, starting with me" was the gist of his message. OK, but now what?

After Goodell finished, a parade of players and former players took to social media to accuse him of offering the same kinds of weak excuses he rejects from players when he is imposing discipline on them.

Goodell seemed to suggest that some kind of training for NFL players is in the offing. That, in itself, would be a sea change for the league. When Lebowitz's group worked with the NFL a few years ago, they counseled front-office personnel about what they should be teaching their players. Far better, he argues, was the approach of the Patriots, who allowed his counselors to work directly with its rookies for three years, from 2006 to 2008.


"One thing this is about is locker room culture, which is really a hypermasculine culture that gets magnified," Lebowitz said. "You can't really create change unless you meet the players where they are, so you can begin to effect that change. You need to speak to them in their language."

The problems plaguing football are so incendiary — and urgent — because they touch on issues far beyond sports. These are issues that matter to people who might never sit down and watch a Patriots game.

By the same token, the NFL's forced introspection can be healthy. American's most popular sports league is being forced to wrestle in a very public way with fundamental questions of how men should treat women, and what the consequences should be of falling short. The reverberations could be enormous. It isn't just kids who watch what famous athletes do.

"It's great that we're having this national conversation that we should have had just by virtue of being human," Lebowitz said.

It should never have taken a video on TMZ of Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancee to convince the NFL that its policies were too lenient, or that waiting for the justice system to take its own course was a good idea. The league has learned, in a dramatic way, that its old standards no longer hold up.


For decades, the NFL has held its players up as models of male behavior. That looks ridiculous now. This disaster holds an opportunity, and the NFL needs to seize it.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.