NFL Too Big to Fail: Football Fans on the Defense & What That Means for Communications

Trigger Warning: This post contains mentions of domestic violence and sexual assault.


During my time waiting tables at restaurants and sports bars, I have observed something about football fans that always struck me as strange. They would quickly jump to defensiveness at the first sign of anyone thinking about criticizing their team. It seemed almost like a paranoid us v. them mindset.

Part of the reason that attitude develops could be because an individual fan perceives that there are some ethical issues surrounding the NFL, but they also have substantial motivation to ignore them. Football is an American institution; it plays a large role in our culture, economy, education, personal relationships, and in our Sundays. The team we support can be a huge part of our identity, and has tremendous potential to build community.

Because football is so intertwined into so many aspects of American life, fans do not want to feel guilty while they continue to support the NFL.

The NFL’s number one priority, then, is to maintain their public image at the surface level—to keep their fans (and their advertisers as a result) happy and comfortable. This was extremely transparent recently when Ravens player Ray Rice was suspended for only 2 games after telling NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell that he had knocked his fiancée unconscious in an elevator, but was later suspended indefinitely when the video of it was seen by the whole country. No additional offense had caused the increased suspension—the only thing that had changed was the public’s perception of the incident. There is some argument over what Ray Rice did tell Goodell that resulted in that 2-game suspension.

Following the event, the NFL changed their policy on off-the-field misconduct, introducing harsher league punishment for domestic violence and sexual assault offenses. They have also been running the “No More” PSAs, which feature celebrities and NFL players saying “No More” to common victim-blaming statements, such as “Why didn’t she just leave?” and “She was asking for it.” These PSAs do address some incredibly important issues, and the football players and celebrities in them provide a lot of legitimacy to the message.

What is their real purpose though? Watching the PSAs and reading the “about” section on NoMore.org gave me the impression that their target audience is people who don’t know much about, nor have ever been affected by domestic violence or sexual assault. But according to the statistics listed on that page, that would be a relatively small percentage of people. Additionally, the call to action in the PSAs is essentially to “stop making excuses for him and stop blaming her,” which is heteronormative and only barely scratches the surface of the issues, not to mention that it asks the audience to do something without really having to do anything.

I think that based on the NFL’s power and position, their moral strategy is not to do good, but to seem good enough. This is reinforced by reports that the NFL discourages players’ wives and girlfriends from seeking police assistance for fear of bad publicity.

I would be interested in what a similar campaign with different target audiences would look like. One that targets current abusers—many of whom enjoy football’s aggressive display of power—could be effective. Or maybe one that speaks to and empowers current victims instead of the innocent bystander, especially since there is not always a bystander in cases of intimate relationship violence. I have hope though, that even if the motives behind these PSAs seem hypocritical, and even if they only provide very basic information on the subject, they will create positive change because of their extremely high exposure. Every conversation they spark is valuable; and each one could potentially save a life.

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