Culture & Society

THE NFL AND THE RISE OF SOCIAL JUSTICE SPORTS JOURNALISM

By NATE CODERRE

The 2014-2015 NFL season is ending in much the same way it does every year: Some perennial contenders are living up to expectations, underdog teams are emerging and the playoff races are starting to heat up. Injuries and penalty flags still pose constant threats to every fan’s mood. But the narrative of the NFL in 2014 has drastically diverged from its typical news cycle: Recurring scandalous headlines have been a cloud over the national experience of the game and created an unavoidable blemish on the league’s reputation.

The league’s year from hell starts, of course, with the now infamous elevator scene that took place this February in an Atlantic City casino. The news/gossip titan TMZ released a video showing Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice dragging an unconscious Janay Rice (then Janay Palmer) out of an elevator. Many sportswriters expressed their frustrations that Commissioner Roger Goodell gave Ray Rice a paltry two game suspension while drug offenders like Josh Gordon were suspended for a whole year (Gordon’s punishment was later reduced as part of a new drug policy/obvious PR move). Her limp body made the impact of domestic violence on victims the first thing on America’s mind.

However, the indignation wasn’t sustainable until TMZ leaked a second video showing Rice actually striking his fiancé. This new video mobilized the sports-viewing public, showcasing the power of a newly influential block of young Internet sportswriters who freely deliver their opinions on social and political issues.

In most domestic violence cases in the NFL, fans would discover their favorite players were arrested by clicking on a one-line link in the corner of their favorite website, or by watching the last few minutes of SportsCenter. They would be annoyed about how that affected their fantasy football team for a few weeks, but ultimately they would be relieved when they inevitably learned that the NFL was going to be lenient. This video changed the way the public reacted because the public was able to actually see the physical damage that domestic violence inflicts on its victims. The brutality of Rice’s actions was undeniable, and the transparent attempts to save the league’s reputation only made it more obvious how complicit the league had been with the epidemic of domestic violence among its players. Goodell’s sudden attempts to express moral outrage about the situation only showcased how cold and calculated previous responses were.

The new wave of public opinion has already proven itself to be a powerful social force. The backlash was so strong that even Anheuser-Busch, one of the league’s most important sponsors, released a statement criticizing the NFL for its actions. Major corporations have been willing to pay premiums for decades to associate themselves with the NFL because its viewership has remained high and stable. Anheuser-Busch isn’t likely to break its profitable partnership with the NFL any time soon, but even the fact that the statement was made shows how greatly the NFL’s reputation has been damaged and how strong the new backlash was.

To understand exactly the nature of this new, socially aware consciousness of the sports fandom, I think it’s prudent to compare this situation to the other major social issue that rocked the sports world this year. In the wake of the Donald Sterling fiasco, the public made it easy for NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to make a decision by putting enormous pressure on the league to strip Sterling of his ownership. Donald Sterling was the Los Angeles Clippers basketball owner until racially charged recordings of his conversations with his girlfriend V. Stiviano were leaked to TMZ. The nature of Sterling’s wrongdoings made his banning inevitable; he had offended a majority of his players, the league and many fans with his racial tirade. He even explicitly attacked Magic Johnson, a beloved hall of fame player and an ambassador of the league.

The Clippers’ players united against him by warming up for their next game with their shirts inside out, obscuring the Clippers’ logo. Fans mass-produced various unofficial Clippers T-shirts, some simplistic (“Fuck the owner”) and some hopeful (“Sterling Out, Equality In”). Thousands of sports journalists and bloggers wrote articles condemning Sterling, and virtually every living basketball legend gave statements echoing the sentiment. Perhaps most importantly, Twitter was set aflame for weeks on end with a unified message of equality.

So what changed with this fresh Sterling scandal? And how does it relate back to the Ray Rice situation? As Bryan Curtis of Grantland argues, the way that popular opinion on sports issues develops has changed in the wake of the expansion of social media. According to Curtis, a block seems to be forming among the young, left-leaning sports fans that dominate Twitter. They are having a profound impact on sports media, which is attempting to heavily integrate Twitter into their reporting. (Watch Sportscenter for 20 minutes; they will almost assuredly put up a bunch of fans’ tweets.) This is politicizing sports columns, a notion that had once been considered taboo. After the Seahawks beat the 49ers in the playoffs last year, the national discussion centered mostly on conservative reactions to Richard Sherman’s emotional rant (a lot of older media people called him a thug) and what they said about the state of race in America.

The simple fact that Twitter maintained a collective interest in the Ray Rice story has improved coverage by creating a demand for information and politicized sports writing. This in turn has solidified a sports fan ideology which convinces a wider audience of sports fans to demand social justice from the major sports leagues. The NFL’s deplorable response to domestic violence has extended the length of our discussion about this issue by inspiring sports sites to continue to talk about it. Modern news sites like Bleacher Report have moved away from the old local newspaper model to a new kind of reporting which employs hundreds of relatively unknown writers to create instant content about every major team instead. They increase their volume by reporting on Twitter reactions and stray comments that would not normally constitute news. This new type of website promotes click-bait articles that pander to the younger public that advertisers crave. This includes allowing their writers to editorialize reports on even the most innocuous pieces of news. These practices certainly open up new debates about what journalistic standards should be in the new millennium, but I think that allowing writers to take stances on social issues will ultimately do more good than bad as long as readers remain discerning.

Unfortunately, the Donald Sterling incident has another, less positive lesson to teach us. The feel-good movement when Silver decided to take the Clippers away from Donald Sterling was a pretty superficial statement against bigotry. Sterling had control of the team for over 30 years; he was an abysmal owner and was accused of racial hatred on more than one occasion. Elgin Baylor, former Clippers GM and a hall of fame player filed a wrongful termination lawsuit on the grounds of race and age-based discrimination, claiming, “And when he finished, Donald said something that was very shocking to me. He said, ‘Personally, I would like to have a white, Southern coach coaching poor black players. And I was shocked. And he looked at me and said, ‘Do you thing that’s a racist statement?’ I said, ‘Absolutely. That’s plantation mentality.’”

He also said that players complained to him that Sterling brought women into the locker room to look at their “black bodies.” These accusations further support Baylor’s claims of a plantation mentality, as only someone with such a mindset would objectify black men in an attempt to impress his social contacts. The league never intervened on the matter and Elgin dropped the racial claims from his lawsuit, eventually having the rest of his lawsuit shot down by a jury. Even more despicably, Sterling’s real estate company spent years participating in housing discrimination and settled in court twice, once in 2003 (undisclosed) and once in 2009 ($2.73 million), for sums that hardly infringe on his company’s net worth. In a 2003 deposition, one of his property supervisors explained his patterns of discrimination, including claiming that black people smell and Mexicans just sit around and smoke and drink all day. Once again, Silver’s predecessor, David Stern, did nothing to intervene with the situation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the NFL has a similar history with implicitly condoning grave social injustices. For example, Ravens linebacker (and Rice’s teammate) Terrell Suggs has had a history of domestic violence, including punching his fiancé, dragging her alongside of a car and spilling bleach on her and her son. This all led up to a 2012 court mandate for him to give up between seven and nine guns because authorities had reason to believe that the mother and child’s lives were in danger. As you can probably guess, the league never suspended him. Sports writers have enjoyed ridiculing Goodell this year for the way he has handled domestic violence, but the league has quietly accepted domestic violence since well before he was in charge. For example, former Tennessee Titans cornerback Samari Rolle hit his wife on Valentine’s Day 2005 and signed a six-year deal worth $30.5 million three weeks later. Rolle plead guilty for assault, but the NFL only fined him a game’s paycheck, refusing to even suspend him. That same year, the 49ers made a trade for Willie Middlebrooks, a player who had just plead guilty to misdemeanor assault. Middlebrooks spun the issue by saying, “The 49ers did their research and found out that Willie is a high-character guy who was in a bad situation.” The list of injustices goes on at a sickening length, both before and during the reign of Goodell, yet fans have been unable to sustain their outrage long enough to demand accountability.

The NFL’s situation differed from the NBA’s because none of football’s prominent figures had a stake in standing up against domestic violence. Sterling’s statements were an affront to a majority of the league’s players, and the national community of racial equality that the league had cultivated over its existence. The league’s leaders would not have allowed the situation to resolve in any other way and the story would have remained in the public consciousness as long as it took. The NFL has no such leaders to sympathize with women, and therefore the league’s manipulations needed to have several layers to keep the conversation trending. Should the general public have actually needed this unlikely series of events to occur before they took up arms about domestic violence? The first Rice tape circled the Internet for a few days, but the discussion largely stopped without the outrage reaching frenzy. How have we been so unsympathetic to domestic abuse that we forget about these crimes after the players get slaps on the wrist? Why do we need to see it happen for us to condemn the perpetrators? Why haven’t we been persistent enough to demand change all along?

This seems to be the limitation of the power of social media; it needs constant reminders to maintain its attention. Despite the intensity of the public outburst, the NFL lost virtually none of its viewership this year, which suggests that the NFL has already begun to turn its narrative away from the off-field controversies. Remaining a fan of the NFL is not an evil in and of itself, but we cannot let ourselves lose sight of the injustices that the league has allowed to go on. We must continue to pay attention to this story and to pressure the NFL into making changes. The NFLPA is attempting to get Ray Rice reinstated, arguing that the NFL violated labor laws by enhancing his punishment (obviously the idea of him coming back is disappointing, but the player’s association is doing its job). With it, we have new evidence that Roger Goodell has lied to the public multiple times. And while much of the sports media has been covering it, the groundswell of support from Twitter has lost its momentum. People are simply moving on to other news stories.

As someone who isn’t an expert in the complexities of NFL franchising laws, I can only see two changes that the public needs to agitate for in hopes of eventually causing broader change. First, Roger Goodell simply must be fired. There is plenty of evidence that he knew all about the details of the incident when he initially gave Rice the two-game suspension, and has since repeatedly lied about it.

Secondly, the NFL needs to find a way to hold teams accountable for their reactions to these crimes. When 49ers player Ray McDonald had a violent altercation with his pregnant fiancé, he called the 49ers security director, ultimately getting a local officer who had previously done security work for the team to come over as the first responder. The case against him was thrown out for lack of evidence (McDonald’s fiancé didn’t end up cooperating). Just hours after the Rice incident occurred, the Ravens organization began a private campaign to convince Goodell to be lenient, while simultaneously lying to the public about the lack of police cooperation. More likely than not, they would have had a support system similar to the 49ers if there wasn’t visual evidence. There has to be some way for the NFL to restrict the way teams can respond to charges against its players. It is impossible to say exactly how much the 49ers and McDonald were able to pressure the victim, but having the first responder be so clearly biased against her must have contributed to feelings of isolation from the San Francisco community and law enforcement as a whole. Domestic violence is hard to prosecute in comparison to other violent crimes, but disentangling the team as much as possible from the legal process would go a long way towards improving its outcome and making it easier for the league to apply its new minimum suspensions.

It is not the responsibility of the NFL to rid our society of domestic violence, but it is incumbent upon us to make every effort to do so. The NFL is a profit driven entity with no moral compass, so we need to leverage our power as viewers to give them an abiding interest in it. We can have a significant impact on the rates of domestic violence within the NFL community, so we must hold it accountable for the actions of its players. The new policy (six games for the first offense, banishment for the second) will not completely do away with the issue, but a history of sustained enforcement of these new rules will go a long way. What’s more, our national discussion of domestic violence should discuss the power imbalances that enable players to perpetrate these acts of violence and the culture of masculinity that emboldens them to do it. The modern era of increased information and discussion has given us a pulpit to voice our socially conscious concerns about our favorite sports, and we have an imperative to do so.

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