The National Football League is a cultural institution of tremendous impact and power, an immensely profitable financial entity, and a television colossus. It’s also in big trouble. Video showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, one of the stars of the league, beating up his then-fiancee (now his wife) in an elevator was so sickening that the league’s long history of sweeping domestic violence allegations by its players under the carpet became untenable. The league’s tone-deaf, contradictory, utterly clue-less reaction to the whole fiasco exacerbated the problem. Pretty soon, the league didn’t just have a Ray Rice problem; it had a Greg Hardy problem, a Ray McDonald problem, as other players were revealed to have beaten up their wives and girlfriends. A league superstar, a former Most Valuable Player, Adrian Peterson, was arrested for beating his four-year old with a tree branch. Football, a sport build on violence, a sport in which speed and aggression and violence are central to its appeal, is the one sport where the public has to know that the players themselves are able to turn it on and turn it off; play hard hitting football, but also able to function as adults in civilized society. The huge majority of players are able to do precisely that, with grace and maturity. But there have to be consequences for players who aren’t able to.
The one sports publication that seems to have the best handle on this is Bill Simmons otherwise-laddish sports-and-pop-culture site Grantland.com. While Sports Illustrated and ESPN have proved as behind-the-eight-ball as the NFL offices on the history (with SI‘s senior football writer, Peter King, who I generally like and admire, offering a humiliating apology for not covering this story as he ought to have done), Simmons himself devoted a very long give-and-take mailbag article to Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, with Simmons calling repeatedly for Goodell to resign. Grantland’s top football guy, Bill Barnwell raised the very real possibility that the NFL might cease to exist in the near future. Best of all, Grantland’s Louisa Thomas wrote this chilling, powerful article showing the league’s historical problems with domestic violence, and how the preferred response has always been to ignore the problem, not respond to it at all. Because they could. Because football fans didn’t much care.
And that’s the larger point. Some football players (a tiny minority, to be sure) have always acted violently off the football field as well as on it. Wives, girlfriends, children, have been beaten up for years. But the league didn’t do anything about it, because nobody in the league offices thought they needed to. Meanwhile, the world was changing. Public awareness of domestic violence has increased. And more and more women have become football fans. The league has, in fact, had some success marketing the game to women.
So what you had was an institution run almost entirely by old, rich, white men, comfortably complacent about the game they administered and sold, not really perceiving the occasional bad headline (usually buried on page eight in the sports’ sectIon) as any kind of serious threat to the game, or to the league itself. Then suddenly the Ray Rice video exploded on the scene, so visceral and brutal and horrifying. And that became a catalyzing incident causing the vague discomfort felt by many fans (probably most fans), over this full-contact sport we liked to watch to expand and explode. And the league was taken completely by surprise, and the league’s ownership and management seemed to have no idea how to respond. And so we saw a series of ad hoc decisions, in which players were suspended, then reinstated, then suspended again by someone else. And everyday we heard a new narrative. Bill Simmons captured it best:
And that’s my biggest issue with Goodell — it’s not just his tone deafness and his penchant for reacting instead of acting. He’s so freaking calculated. About everything. For eight years, he’s handled his business like some father of a high school kid who’s hosting a prom party, sees some unresponsive drunk kid sprawled across the bathroom floor, then thinks to himself, Crap, I might get sued, what do I do? instead of This kid might be hurt, we have to help him!
Calculated, sure. But also utterly clue-less. It wasn’t until Anheuser Busch threatened to withdraw their sponsorship of the league that anyone did anything meaningful about Adrian Peterson. As Jon Stewart put it, this meant that the moral center of the league was a beer manufacturer. A company that makes a product that can be proved to lead to domestic violence.
But that’s what happens. An organization drifts along, happily (and profitably) complacent. And meanwhile, the world changes. And the organization’s leadership finds itself baffled and confused, capable of only the most ineffectual responses.
It’s like Smith-Corona, making these great typewriters for years, and then suddenly the world changed and nobody wanted a typewriter anymore. Or Blockbuster video, with a great business model, stores in every town, movie rentals for any occasion. And then the world changed, and nobody wanted to traipse down an aisle looking for movies to rent anymore. May I gently suggest that the emergence of Ordain Women might be such a catalyzing incident for the LDS Church?