As NFL Waffles on Abuse Cases, Can It Keep Women Fans

By Barbara Frankel

Photo by Shutterstock

Women are increasingly important to the NFL — they now comprise almost half the fan base. But can a league that has consistently gone easy on players who have committed domestic abuse successfully market to women

The NFL has made a concerted effort to market to women in the past few years. Women represent approximately 45 percent of the NFL fan base, according to Scarborough Research, and approximately 33 percent of the NFL viewing audience based on Nielsen data.

Domestic violence impacts one in three women and affects about 20 victims a minute on average, according the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The NFL has stated that it will work to end domestic violence but its efforts so far consist of appointing advisers and, for the most part, letting abusers off easy.

That last part is what’s most important. Corporations have found that marketing to under-served populations requires one thing above all credibility. And the NFL right now has been losing its credibility with many women because of the weak stand it has taken in cases of players and domestic abuse.

Credibility means having people who represent the community at the top (the NFL leadership is all white men) and building trust by holding people accountable for their actions. In the world of diversity management, that can mean performance bonuses for raising demographic numbers or letting employees go who refuse to curtail racist, sexist or homophobic views. There also is a corollary to the actions taken in Ferguson, where leadership credibility required strong actions that weren’t taken and a subsequent failure of community support.

NFL’s Missteps

The league has had several well-publicized cases of players involving domestic abuse with two still outstanding. Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson pleaded no contest to charges he beat his young son. The league has not yet determined whether to let him come back. Former Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy had his conviction for domestic abuse overturned after he appealed it and is also now awaiting re-instatement.

One of the most well-known cases involved former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who was indicted for third-degree aggravated assault after punching his then fiance (now wife) in the face, leaving her unconscious. He received an indefinite suspension by the NFL and won, and is now a free agent.

Last week, there was media speculation that Jameis Winston, expected to be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft April 30, would not be present because of allegations that he raped another student three years ago. Salon reports that last week, Winston met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, “a perfunctory PR move that will allow the NFL to welcome the alleged rapist with open arms, while keeping up the guise of taking violence against women seriously.”

Under Goodell, USA Today reports the league has a history of leniency in these cases, as well as waffling on its decisions. In 14 cases, the league suspended or deactivated players, but primarily just for one game. In 16 cases, the league chose not to suspend a player. In 15 cases, players were released, but according to USA Today “These players often had marginal talent, but teams could make a show of their release by appearing to have a zero-tolerance policy toward domestic violence.”

The league has tried to address the growing domestic-abuse concerns by hiring Cynthia Hogen, a former aide to Vice President Joe Biden, to meet with members of Congress, especially female ones, and diffuse anger against the NFL. She helped write the federal Violence Against Women Act in 1994.

The NFL also hired as advisers former New York sex-crimes prosecutor Lisa Friel, Jane Randel (who founded NO MORE to stop domestic violence) and Rita Smith, head of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Actions speak louder than words. What Goodell decides about reinstating the players sends the loudest message about how serious the NFL is.

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