NFL in danger of losing sight of what really matters

The new NFL season in the US is bringing with it more moral confusion than ever and it’s only the beginning of August.

As if concussion wasn’t enough of a conundrum for the commissioner, Roger Goodell, to contend with, these last two weeks have witnessed large scale soul-searching about the treatment of women in sport and wider society — an often heated conversation sparked by a high profile domestic abuse case involving a star running back for the Baltimore Ravens.

We’re heading into the 95th season of this undeniably fascinating sport. The box office opening game on Thursday September 4 will bring the storied Green Bay Packers to the home of the Super Bowl champions in Seattle, the Seahawks.

The NFL should be coasting towards it on the usual sea of enthusiasm and wads of cash. Instead, arrows are being slung from every corner and it seems as though they only have themselves to blame.

We’re on the crest of pre-season preparations with just over four weeks to go. Pre-season games are undeniably vital but they’re also an anachronism in August — the hard knocks are fully felt from September on.

There will be a full slate of exhibition matches to avoid between tomorrow and Saturday. Most sane people ignored the first pre-season game last Sunday night — there was simply not enough of an appeal to a knockabout between the New York Giants and the Buffalo Bills.

And anyway, it’s simply too hot to be watching football — it makes no sense. Conveniently so. The hypocrites among us can use this time to boycott the NFL before discarding our grievances next month to enjoy yet another season of drama.

Ray Rice was supposed to be one of the good ones. A compact powerhouse carrying the ball to huge effect from behind the Ravens offensive line, he seemed to be a model professional in spite of his impoverished background in Upstate New York.

Then grainy security video was leaked in Spring of the running back dragging his practically unconscious then-fiancée (now wife) out of a lift in an Atlantic City hotel. He was arrested and he was subsequently ordered out in front of the cameras with the nervous looking Janay Palmer, the victim of what both now claim was a complete one-off.

He did almost all the talking — making for an even more problematic scene but a necessity possibly borne out of the fact that it is part of his job to talk to the press. What detracted from his contrite demeanour was his nervy insistence that this was his misfortune alone; after he asserted that “sometimes in life, you will get knocked down”, it became more farcical.

“I won’t call myself a failure,” he postulated. “Failure is not getting knocked down. It’s not getting up.” Janay Rice — as she was in May when this presser occurred — was apparently deeply regretful of the role she played the night of the incident.

A two-game ban was the sum total of the NFL’s outrage. Meanwhile a young wide receiver at the Cleveland Browns was facing a season long suspension for once again failing a drug test — of course it was that most trivial of substances, marijuana, which had Park Avenue in a fluster.

Admittedly, there are only a handful of people who know exactly what happened in that lift between Rice and his future wife. And the NFL would be criticised no matter what punishment they meted out.

But something’s inherently wrong when a grown man who would launch any of us into the middle of next week with just one of his fists can level his wife and carry on with his career. It goes way back to education. It leads right up to an ESPN bloviator called Stephen A Smith saying live on air that although he abhors domestic violence, he wonders when the woman’s role will be looked at more critically. He was taken off the air for a week.

I won’t speak for Ireland but it’s an odd time to be a woman in the US. Reproductive rights are under siege at the federal level and daily street harassment is becoming more common. People are more informed now but the message is becoming drowned out by the incessant misogyny of online media that feeds into the streets, the workplace and our sports.

Professional athletes could certainly do without the ‘role model’ expectations placed upon their young shoulders. But it’s part of the package these days. At the very least, fans (and young fans in particular) should be able to wear a jersey proudly and not worry that an entire gender is alienated by a sport.

E-mail: johnwriordan@gmail.com

Twitter: JohnWRiordan

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