The NFL and the theater of violence

  Ray McDonald, seen here in 2008, has been arrested again, this time on felony domestic abuse charges. Photograph by Derek Kaczmarczyk.

Ray McDonald, seen here in 2008, has been arrested again, this time on felony domestic abuse charges. Photograph by Derek Kaczmarczyk.

The Chicago Bears’ hiring and firing of defensive end Ray McDonald – he of the three arrests for domestic violence, the second of which got him cut from the San Francisco 49ers – tells you that the NFL remains ambivalent about domestic violence.

There are a number of reasons for this. First, we as a nation remain ambivalent. McDonald’s first two arrests were dropped, so who’s to say the third won’t be? Isn’t a man innocent until proven guilty? Shouldn’t he have a chance to redeem himself, earn a living and express his talents?

Except that three arrests aren’t an anomaly. They’re a pattern of behavior. So what to do?

“The league has not really thought through its own message,” said Paul H. Haagen, co-director of the Center for Sports Law and Policy at Duke University. “They are definitely making it up as they go along and leaving themselves areas of discretion. But by leaving themselves discretion and not making clear what the required processes are, there is constant uncertainty and questions.”

The NFL can’t even figure out how to process Deflategate. The players’ union wants Commissioner Roger Goodell to recuse himself but as arbitrator Goodell gets to decide if he should be recused. Huh? How’s the league going to implement a cohesive policy regarding domestic violence when it fumbles procedures regarding the rules of the game?

The reason the league is having such a difficult time is that it is not merely caught between its new zero-tolerance policy toward domestic violence and wanting to be fair to its players, as Ken Belson writes in that May 27 New York Times’ column. It’s really caught between its desire to maintain a clean-cut image that will preserve the illusion of all-American athleticism for parents and advertisers, and the need to win with the most talented players, regardless of their moral character. The NFL is a violent world – one I explore in my forthcoming novel “The Penalty for Holding,” the second in my series “The Games Men Play.” It is war as theater, and often those best suited to act on its stage are those who cannot cope with life’s frustrations without raising their fists.

Like all wars, there is collateral damage – in this case, the abused women and children. You get the sense, however, that the NFL wishes they would just go away so that the teams can concentrate on what they do best and what is most important to them – winning and making money.

Even among those who have exhibited compassion there can be an insensitivity toward others. My favorite Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback, got in trouble for using the devastating Houston flooding to play off his #stormscoming, which refers to his improved game. At least he had the courage and good sense to heed the criticism from fans and post this reply:

“I’m sorry about my insensitive post earlier today. I didn’t fully understand how many people in Houston are struggling right now, and I feel horrible about it. My prayers are with everyone there.”

The operative words in the above sentence – “I didn’t fully understand.” Maybe it’s time the NFL and its players fully understood before raising a hand, posting a tweet or putting procedures in place.