The NFL, in a press release Wednesday, boasted that “over 109 million viewers had tuned in to Week 1 NFL action.”
Count me among them. I love football. I would watch the NFL regardless of whether this newspaper paid me to do so.
But the more I watch, the more I find myself asking a difficult question.
Does the NFL love me back?
And by “me,’’ I mean a female fan.
This is no knee-jerk reaction to the news about Antonio Brown, because that seems to be merely an addition to the ever-growing evidence that an undeniable, uncomfortable, and unnecessary undercurrent of misogyny remains just beneath the game’s glossy surface. That the controversial wide receiver is the latest man in the NFL to find himself on the wrong end of a sexual assault allegation only deepens an open wound. That he is here in New England, where the owner has repeatedly vowed to respect women, even more so after being involved in his own embarrassing incident last February?
Well, that just stings even more.
I can’t help but reread Robert Kraft’s statement from back in March, his first public words on the Florida charges for solicitation of prostitution that put him in the crosshairs of law enforcement. As we know now, it’s unlikely those charges will result in any criminal conviction, not when a judge ruled the video evidence was inadmissible and admonished local police for the unlawful surveillance. But Kraft knows what the incident cost him in the court of public opinion.
“I am truly sorry,” he wrote. “I know I have hurt and disappointed my family, my close friends, my co-workers, our fans, and many others who rightfully hold me to a higher standard.
“Throughout my life, I have always tried to do the right thing. The last thing I would ever want to do is disrespect another human being. I have extraordinary respect for women; my morals and my soul were shaped by the most wonderful woman, the love of my life, who I was blessed to have as my partner for 50 years.
“As I move forward, I hope to continue to use the platform with which I have been blessed to help others and to try to make a difference. I expect to be judged not by my words, but by my actions. And through those actions, I hope to regain your confidence and respect.”
So far, the only Patriot action on Brown has been to sign him within 15 minutes of his appearance on the open market, which ignored the well-documented, very public antics that Brown pulled to force his release from the Raiders. And the only people so far in position to answer questions about the transaction — coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady, and a locker room full of teammates — haven’t gone anywhere near those details.
Did Kraft, Belichick et al know about the impending lawsuit before adding Brown to the roster? Neither Belichick nor Brown’s agent, Drew Rosenhaus, would say Wednesday, the former getting testy with reporters when pressed on the question, the latter punting on that detail during an on-camera interview with ESPN.
Either way, it doesn’t inspire confidence in me. If Kraft knew, why did he approve Brown’s addition? If he didn’t, should he have? And now that he does, should he part ways with Brown?
Instead, it seems the team is willing to defer (take cover) to league investigators, and NFL PR rep Brian McCarthy did confirm to the Globe Thursday that “the matter is under review.”
Whether that means the league might step in and put Brown on the commissioner’s exempt list before Sunday’s game in Miami is unknown, but with a league source confirming that Brown’s accuser Britney Taylor and her lawyer will not meet with NFL investigators until next week, that surely remains a possibility.
But as confidence meters go? On the NFL’s history of investigating violence against women, very low. From Ray Rice to Greg Hardy to Josh Brown to Kareem Hunt to Tyreek Hill, who has faith it will get something right this time?
Taking immediate action on Brown would seem unfair to many NFL/Patriot fans, their objections rooted in our American justice system that assumes innocence until guilt is proven, and bolstered by the absence of any criminal complaint, the timing as Brown signs with a new team for a $9 million bonus, and his countercharge that Taylor is extorting him. But the NFL has long taught us it plays by its own rules, suspensions for PEDs or Deflategate certainly not determined by our rule of law.
And here’s what taking immediate action would do: make a statement about the ugly, demeaning, disgusting words Brown is accused of using toward Taylor in text messages that also seem to admit to one of the more disgusting sex acts he allegedly perpetrated behind her back, with him describing laughing about it with a friend.
You know what would inspire confidence? If this becomes something the NFL could help change. For every misstep of the past, the NFL remains powerful enough to affect our daily conversations, and if it could find a way to help educate and eradicate that small chapter of the locker-room-culture world that insists this sort of language toward women is somehow appropriate, I would personally stand up and cheer.
That is the sort of impact Kraft talks about wanting, a request to follow his actions and not his words when it comes to regaining our trust. Antonio Brown will surely help his team win some football games. But win over uncomfortable female fans? No chance.
Tara Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com.