On the NFL, Domestic Violence, and Child Abuse

The miracle of the Ray Rice fiasco is that the NFL has, improbably, failed to do the one thing that American corporate culture dictates: fire the person responsible as quickly as possible. If the NFL had fired Roger Goodell last Monday, or he had resigned, the story would be dead right now, and no one would care. Instead, we have been able to witness something more surprising: a large segment of the population figuring out the problem of American masculinity in real time.

We don't need to look very far for evidence that a quick firing would have killed interest in the topic: Penn State did the sensible thing and fired Joe Paterno as soon as it became clear he knew something about the decades of child sexual assault perpetrated by one of his assistants--fired him because knowing something and not reporting it is morally inexcusable. As a result of this decision, the people who were maddest about the crime considered justice (mostly) done and forgot about it, and the Cult of Paterno quickly came to think of him as a man railroaded, and preferred living in their paranoid fantasy of people who hate PSU for 'doing things the right way,' which also conveniently allows them to avoid any extended reflection on what happened and where it happened.

Goodell didn't resign, and so people noticed that Jim Harbaugh (may he never coach at Michigan) talked a tough line about domestic violence but was more than willing to forgive, and that the Carolina Panthers were allowing a man who had been convicted(!) of domestic violence to continue playing. And then they noticed, or remembered, that the NFL has a constant, ongoing problem with domestic violence. All of which is good, and all of which only happens because an entity obsessed with its image failed to execute the most basic of PR moves.

And then there was Adrian Peterson beating his child bloody, which led to this:

A grown man with impeccable masculinity credentials saying on an NFL broadcast that his mother was wrong to have beaten him, and the NFL doesn't care at all about women.

As a result, the conversation has shifted from a question of football, or football culture, to a question of American masculinity more generally. It leads people like Drew Magary, he of the Dick Joke Jamboroo, to write:

That's what corporal punishment is. It's a failure. It's a complete breakdown of communication between parent and child. Children are unpredictable, reckless, and occasionally violent. They can drive otherwise rational humans into fits of rage. And I have had moments—many moments, certainly—where I have felt that rage after exhausting every last possible idea to get them to behave: bribery, timeouts, the silent treatment, walking away (they follow you!), distraction, throwing the kids outside (they end up ringing the doorbell a lot), you name it. So I have tried corporal punishment as a final resort, a desperate last stab at closure. That's an easy way for parents to justify it: You forced me to do this, child. Spanking the kid did nothing for me. It only made me realize what a fucking failure I was. Oh, and the kid still kept yelling.

Spanking and beating your kid teaches your kid to talk with violence. It validates hitting as a legitimate form of communication. Everything is modeled. I have yelled at my kids, and then seen them yell. I have smacked my kid, and then watched her smack someone else. They don't learn to be good from any of it. They don't learn to sit still and practice piano sonatas. All they learn is, Hey, this works! And then they go practice what you just preached. Beating a kid creates an atmosphere of toxicity in a house that lingers forever: One beating leads to the next, and to the next, and to the next, until parents don't even know why they're beating the kid anymore. They just do. Once it is normalized, it takes root. Parents begin to like the habit. Those pictures of Peterson's kid? The violence can get worse ... much worse ... so much worse it's astonishing.

It is eminently logical, reasonable, and centered around the idea of a father having adult responsibilities he must manage in a way compatible with his maturity and his reason. The continued crisis leads to people reflecting in deeper, more complex ways about the nature of masculinity in football. It solidifies a consensus amongst people who would not have devoted a lot of attention to the issue that domestic violence is a widespread problem, and corporal punishment is not an acceptable parenting strategy. It creates a clear and vocal consensus where it might have been unexpressed, and encourages people to disapprove of behavior that falls outside those norms--a rare, but welcome, sign of social pressure being exerted to good ends. It gives us that most American of spectacles, the sponsors bailing out. Nothing impresses an American like declining the opportunity to make money, and very little makes money like the NFL: if a company does not want to be associated with them, it sends the powerful signal that something has gone terribly wrong.

So long as the condition of Goodell's remaining in office is a continued spotlight on domestic violence, child abuse, and the people who would enable them, I hope he never resigns.

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