Pittsburgh is a town that loves its sports. This is apparent on every flashing marquee, on the side of every bus, and in every restaurant—chain and independent alike. One night last spring, I caught sight of this love in the lobby of Patron, a Mexican restaurant in Pittsburgh’s North Hills suburbs, and lost myself in the autographed pictures hanging floor to ceiling of all the Steelers who have eaten there.
But I was also introduced to another kind of history. “This place was all over the news a few years ago,” my cousin told me as we slid into our booth. “Remember Cedrick Wilson? Receiver for the Steelers? He came in here and hit his ex-girlfriend in the face.”
A different story than the one told by those smiling photographs, for sure. Shortly after the assault, owner Dan Rooney issued the following statement: “The Steelers do not condone violence of any kind, especially against women,” and Wilson was cut from the team. Likewise, Steelers running back Chris Rainey was cut hours after chasing down his girlfriend and slapping her during an altercation in January 2013.
Other teams have demonstrated similar no tolerance policies—the Dolphins had no problem terminating Chad Johnson following domestic battery charges in 2012, and the Bengals’ release of Ahmad Brooks after he punched a woman in 2008 was highly speculated to be fueled by the team’s efforts “to rehabilitate their image.”
But consistency is key, and not all athletes and teams have been playing by the same set of rules. Ahmad Brooks was picked up by the 49ers shortly after his release by the Bengals—only to go on and assault a teammate this past July. Following a domestic abuse charge in 2011, Green Bay linebacker Erik Walden received little more than a slap on the wrist—a mere one-game suspension.
Linebacker James Harrison continued to play for the Steelers after agreeing to enter counseling following assault charges in 2008, sparking an underdog-overcoming-adversity spin that journalists like Harold Abend have given the story. Abend portrays Harrison as a sympathetic figure despite his long history of violent outbursts—“The bumps and bruises he has sustained on the gridiron…pale in comparison to what he has endured off the field”—as though James Harrison is a victim of unfortunate circumstance and not a habitual instigator responsible for his own conduct.
What do all of these violent incidents add up to? Two things.
1) Public outrage does not seem to amass until NFL violence escalates. We were shocked and horrified by the accusations surrounding Ray Lewis and, more recently, Aaron Hernandez. We were more than happy to weigh in on the Ben Rothlisberger rape allegations. And of course, there was the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide. Murder and suicide are horrific, but do not negate the terror living women (and men) experience at the hands of abusers.
One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Normalizing and downplaying these incidents (It’s the couple’s private business; we don’t know the whole story) must end. Period.
2) The NFL has garnered a reputation for being THE professional sports organization with THE domestic violence problem. Sure, domestic violence appears in other sports (NBA star Jason Kidd’s assault charges; wrestler Chris Benoit’s double murder and suicide), but given that 21 of 32 NFL teams carried at least one player with domestic violence or assault charges on their rosters during the 2012 season, the NFL is in a unique position, to, as Churchill once advised, “see the opportunity in every difficulty.”
Individual players are already seizing the opportunity to speak out. Cornerback Brandon Carr joined former Cowboys Emmitt Smith and Roger Staubach at a “Men Against Abuse” rally in Dallas last March. Ravens linebacker Chris Canty told USA TODAY Sports that “we’ve got to stop being silent about this,” after speaking at an April domestic violence awareness seminar in Baltimore. Canty’s teammate, defensive back Chris Johnson, is using his professional platform to share a very personal story: his sister, Jennifer, was shot and killed by her estranged boyfriend in December 2011. After taking in his sister’s two daughters to raise them as his own, Johnson now travels to various women’s shelters to promote awareness. And check out Giants quarterback Eli Manning’s participation alongside other professional athletes in the White House’s “1 is 2 Many” PSA, in case you missed it last summer.
As wonderful and necessary as this activism is, we need more of an impact from the NFL as a whole. I propose the following:
1) Tighten up the policy. The NFL must revise their current Personal Conduct Policy so that it is clear and consistent regarding domestic violence and assault matters. All teams in the league should be required to uphold this policy regardless of which current or potential players wind up in the hot seat—no high school athletic favoritism here. Change.org has already put the wheels in motion to petition Roger Goodell.
2) Start an official campaign. The NFL currently has no official campaign (Play 60) or initiative (breast cancer; going green) specifically targeting domestic violence. A league-wide campaign would unite the good work that many players are doing individually and inspire more activism in American communities. October is upon us, which means pink on hats and uniforms all over the field in support of breast cancer awareness. Wouldn’t it be great to see some purple for domestic violence awareness, too?
3) Partner up. Innumerable organizations have devoted themselves to raising domestic violence awareness. A partnership with the NFL could generate more volunteers, funding, and publicity, as it has for over 35 years with the United Way. Here are just a few of the groups and charities dedicated to domestic violence and related issues:
- National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV)
- Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN)
- Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused (CASA, Inc.)
- Futures Without Violence (FWV)
- Men Against Domestic Violence (DVS)
I didn’t know about Cedrick Wilson’s assault until I sat down to eat at the very scene of the crime. I didn’t know about James Harrison’s violent history until after we won the Super Bowl in 2009—after I donned his jersey and cheered my team to victory.
There is a picture of 21-year-old me sitting on a dorm room futon, pulling on the number 92. A friend snapped it moments after Harrison’s glorious 100-yard touchdown return, and reviewing the excitement on my face makes me long for the days of a more successful franchise. When I finally read up on the linebacker’s off-the-field reputation weeks after the big game, I felt palpable disappointment, the chest drop every fan feels when our biggest heroes let us down. I wanted to support my Steelers, but I did not want to support an abuser.
Being both a woman and an owner of Ben Rothlisberger and James Harrison jerseys has created a strange and troubling kind of cognitive dissonance for me, something that I haven’t fully figured out how to deal with. Perhaps the NFL could help. By doing its part to tackle the problem of domestic violence, the NFL would be taking a crucial step toward getting everyone’s heads back in the game.