If the NFL wants to take an unequivocal stance on domestic violence and promote respectful and nonviolent relationship, it should start by embracing a simple but powerful gesture.
What I am suggesting is not new. It has been successfully tested in that other version of football.
When the international soccer community was confronted with repeated acts of racism, FIFA, the international governing body that has grappled with its own reputational issues, launched an anti-racism campaign. The most striking example of that campaign was demonstrated once again at the recent World Cup quarterfinals in Brazil, in front of hundreds of millions of fans. Right before the kickoff, the captains of each team read a declaration against racism and discrimination, a gesture that generated worldwide attention.
A similar campaign for the NFL will not resolve domestic violence or sexual abuse. It will, however, make room for a course of action that is essential and overdue. Of all the stakeholders in this latest NFL controversy, the ones who have remained on the sidelines are the active players. They have been silent observers, either willingly or because their bosses asked them to avoid the fray. Undoubtedly, however, a good number of them have been irritated about the unwanted distraction, upset that their public image has been tarnished, or genuinely outraged about the shocking display of violent behavior against women and children.
Such an initiative encourages NFL players to do something similarly bold in favor of nonviolent, respectful relationships with women and children. It would give the players an opportunity to step out of the shadow and speak up. It provides them a space right on their turf where they can demonstrate solidarity with their wives, girlfriends, daughters, and mothers, recognizing that in this specific realm there is no neutral zone. Either you condone violence against women or you don’t. And if you don’t, let the world know, on the field, at the game.
No sport of the size and influence of American football ever dared to take on the omnipresent issue of domestic violence and sexual abuse. It seems that so far the NFL as an organization has chosen the strategy of damage control, the default response of most institutions that deal with violence against women. So it would be up to the players to change the course and do the right thing. The players are the heart of the NFL. Without them, there is no excitement and no business.
Just imagine for a moment how the teams line up on the sidelines. Right after the national anthem and before the kickoff, at that moment where the anticipation reaches a first peak, the team captains read a brief statement against domestic violence and sexual abuse. This would be a powerful message to all those who have a stake in football, owners, coaches, fans, the media, and last, but not least, the players themselves. Players don’t look to their coaches when it comes to relationships with women or domestic matters. They take cues from their peers, especially those men they admire. Fans, similarly, can take their cues from the actions of the players they admire.
Adopting the FIFA model would also mark a significant change in this latest episode of sports and society. If the active players add their voice and support to confront domestic violence and sexual abuse, it could be a game changer.
Alberto Godenzi is the dean of Boston College’s Graduate School of Social Work.