It's hard to see why people are getting so worked up over the case of Ray Rice, the football star who got a slap on the wrist from the National Football League after he knocked his wife unconscious. The league is being accused of being too soft on domestic violence. But if the NFL kicked out every player guilty of domestic violence, there'd hardly be an NFL left.
Why should the private misconduct of these men surprise us? Football players are trained for focused violence. They are prized for their combination of athleticism and brute force. They're programmed to run at each other at full speed and knock each other down, as hard as possible, over and over again. They are selected for their unusually high levels of aggression, and rewarded with extraordinary amounts of money, adulation and sex. It's little wonder they're not always nice guys off the field.
Football players are the modern version of gladiators, mauling each other to death in the Colosseum as spectators cheer. So why do we pretend to be shocked that they're not the tiddlywinks team?
Besides, not all football players are from the upper middle class. Some are barely literate. Their family backgrounds are sometimes different from yours and mine, as are their views on corporal punishment. After Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson was benched for beating his four-year-old-son with a switch, more than one athlete came to his defence. "I have a one-year-old daughter and I discipline her," said Detroit Lions running back Reggie Bush. Unwisely, he added, "I definitely will try to … obviously not leave bruises or anything like that on her."
I'm not saying that football players should be able to get away with domestic abuse. But the faux outrage directed at the league for its deep confusion over how to handle the matter strikes me as more than slightly sanctimonious. The sports media establishment has taken off after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell like a pack of wolves. They smell blood and won't be happy till they bring him down and rip him to pieces.
Meanwhile, the league has good reason to be worried. Women are its greatest growth opportunity. They now make up 45 per cent of the fan base, according to the Washington Post, and advertisers love them. The Super Bowl draws more female viewers than the Oscars, Grammys and Emmys combined. It simply can't afford to turn off women, or the marketers who want to reach them.
The advertisers are running scared, too – but only to a point. They're engaged in cynical manoeuvring, disguised as moral judgment. This week, Baltimore Ravens sponsor Under Armour issued a statement saying the team had "made a mistake" and "learned hard lessons" in Mr. Rice's case. It did not go so far as to cancel its sponsorship. Nor did Verizon. "Because of our long-standing commitment to this issue, we believe we can be far more effective in preventing domestic violence by remaining in the arena with our partners at the NFL rather than backing away from the controversy," Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam said in a statement on LinkedIn.
Translation: The NFL is the biggest marketing game on the planet, and we can't afford to be sidelined. As Tony Ponturo, a former media executive with Anheuser-Busch, told The New York Times, "Either way, it is all about protecting your business."
Anyway, whose business is the private conduct of a sports star, a celebrity, a politician, a CEO, or a person like you or me? That depends on the subject's fame, the mores of the times and the strength of public opinion. On the whole, the standards of conduct for public figures are much higher than they used to be. And popular outrage can ignite overnight. When the CEO of a sports arena catering company was recently caught on video abusing a friend's dog in a Vancouver elevator, people wanted to lynch him on the spot. We hate cruelty to animals as much as we hate child abuse; the guy never stood a chance. And as for double standards, let's just say that certain media and marketing executives are no doubt grateful that their own domestic lapses have not cost them their jobs.
Sometimes I watch football, just to keep my husband company. I like the artistry, although I like ogling the players more. I don't have too much problem with the violence; after all, it's better than war, and a great deal better than the bloody public spectacles that used to entertain the masses. Our aversion to bloody violence is really quite new – like our aversions to domestic violence, animal cruelty and corporal punishment for children.
But I can't overlook the fact that most of these guys will suffer serious lifelong brain injuries. The NFL (and its players, fans and sponsors) can't come to moral terms with this catastrophe, because it would mean the end of the game and the whole gazillion-dollar industry. Our old brain is in conflict with our modern brain. Our rational, civilized, modern brain knows it's wrong. But our excitement-craving, combat-loving, old brain can't bear to give up its pleasures just yet.
Some day, our descendants will probably be as disgusted by our tolerance for brain injuries as we are now by Roman blood lust. But that day is not yet in sight. And so far, the sponsors are being proven right. Despite the lines of fans eager to trade in their Ray Rice jerseys, audiences haven't shrunk a bit.
No doubt we'll all approve when the league clamps down on misbehaving players by sending them off to behaviour management class. We'll all congratulate ourselves on how enlightened we are.