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Ingber ’15: Unsportsmanlike conduct for Rice and the NFL

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Opinions Columnist

I love football. There is nothing better than grabbing a bunch of friends and watching a close NFL game on a Sunday afternoon in the fall. Rivalries are intense, traditions loom large, and the Super Bowl never ceases to disappoint.

But the recent events surrounding Ray Rice’s battering of his fiancee have been especially troubling for me. I am usually not one to consider the personal lives of professionals when enjoying their actions within their professional realms, but this incident was so egregious that it has made me think a lot about the role of the league in addressing such behavior. This isn’t a conversation about an offensive team name — though that is an important conversation for another column. This is a conversation about the responsibility a league has to demand certain levels of decency from its players.

Surely the league has no legal responsibility to punish Rice. It could completely defer to local authorities to carry out investigations and exact punishment through the judicial system. But as a private organization, the NFL should strive to create a culture in which certain values are promoted and certain actions are not tolerated. In fact, sports are often key building blocks of character for many Americans — why should the NFL not reflect that on the professional level?

Professional sports leagues have done well to commit themselves to values off the field that move into the realm of players’ personal lives. The NFL promoted a culture of acceptance surrounding Michael Sam, the first openly gay NFL player. FIFA, the international soccer governing body, has consistently conveyed anti-racism messages throughout its tournaments and international games. Why should domestic violence be any different? Domestic violence does not carry a direct link to the function of sports leagues themselves — that is, to provide a platform for professional sports — but that should not prevent a certain ethical expectation of its players.

There are absolutely racial dimensions to the Rice incident as well. My gut instinct is that the majority of America has normalized the image of an African-American professional athlete abusing his wife or partner. We need to fight this image and constantly reject it. The acceptance of domestic violence in this situation because of who Rice is represents a surreptitious form of racism that is no less pernicious than something more overt.

What does it say about society’s response to domestic violence that we need a video to prompt a serious suspension from the NFL? According to the American Bar Association, African-American women experience domestic violence at a 35 percent higher rate than white women of the same age bracket. I am not an expert on this subject, but I’d like to hope that a strong rebuke of domestic violence by professional athletes and athletic leagues could help to reduce that tragic statistic.

The league needs to realize that athletes are more than just professional human specimens — they are role models to almost every kid in America. The same way we emulate touchdown dances on the playground is how we subtly accept the behavior of our favorite athletes. And in realizing this, the league should accept its heightened responsibility to promote ethical and acceptable behavior among its athletes.

And then there are questions about the twisted procedural justice the NFL followed with Rice. After the NFL issued a flimsy two-game suspension, public outcry forced the league to levy an indefinite suspension. The NFL cannot both pander to public outcry and claim to have its own authority to exact punishment a priori.

It’s hard for me to sit here and suggest an exact punishment that the NFL should have doled out to Rice. At the end of the day, I respect that the NFL is a business venture and seeks to make money — and that is perfectly acceptable. But businesses can function, even thrive, while holding their employees to a certain ethical standard. And while I don’t know what punishment should have been levied, I do know that the league should have sent a more coherent message from the get-go that domestic violence is unacceptable. Why should we need a viral video to prompt the league to act accordingly?

The problem certainly arises that the NFL should not turn into a proxy for the justice system and law enforcement. And I agree with that sentiment. But certain behaviors are either so egregious or so antithetical to the hard work and character development organized sports are meant to promote that they can, and should, be addressed by the league.

Allegations recently surfaced that the NFL had received the video of Rice punching his fiancee way back in April. If that’s the case, we can suspect either a major cover-up or major incompetence on the part of Commissioner Roger Goodell. Either way, I hope the league will send a clear message to its players that this type of behavior will not be tolerated. If there is a standardized and procedurally sound protocol to address performance-enhancing drugs and excessive celebration, surely one can be implemented to address abuse in which there is an actual human victim.

 

Zach Ingber’s ’15 football career peaked on the elementary school playground. He can be reached at zachary_ingber@brown.edu.

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One Comment

  1. “Rivalries are intense, traditions loom large, and the Super Bowl never ceases to disappoint.”–a sentence putatively written by a human and not some sort of machine

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