On Thursday, Nov. 9, I was at the gym around 10:00 p.m, spinning away on the stationary bike and passively watching Sports Center when a story about Ezekiel Elliott caught my eye. Being a born and bred New York Giants fan, I tend to stay away from all things Dallas Cowboys, and so I hadn’t heard the news about the running back’s suspension. Curious, I decided to pause my workout and pursue a quick Google investigation. It took me less than 30 seconds to find out why Elliot had been suspended for six games and why ESPN was showing footage of him leaving a courthouse on loop: Elliot has been accused by a former girlfriend of domestic violence.
Some background for those who are as unfamiliar with the story as I was: it took the National Football League more than a year from the time Elliott was initially accused of abuse to suspend him for six games. Following that, the facts in the case become more confusing. According to the sports site SBNation, the woman involved in the case was determined by the police to have made one false statement regarding one instance of violence, but an investigation conducted by the NFL itself corroborated three other claims of physical violence. On Aug. 11, 2017 the NFL suspended Elliot for six games, after the year long investigation. Four days later, Elliot filed an appeal against the suspension. Over the next four months the NFL, Elliot and the NFL Players association went back and forth in various lawsuits and appeals, until November 9, when his final motion to appeal the suspension was denied.
While certain aspects of Elliot’s case are still unclear, it is perhaps the effect that a story like his has on sports that is more important. As I was doing a quick read of a Sports Illustrated article on his situation, I realized that the Sports Center hosts were having a discussion not about the consequences of Elliot’s actions, but about how the suspension of such a talented player would affect fantasy football leagues. My lack of surprise at their topic choice was what surprised me the most. As a lifelong female sports fan, I am disappointed that I’m no longer shocked by this kind of coverage of an abusive athlete.
The NFL has a well documented and heavily criticized track record when it comes to domestic abuse. The league has a history of covering up instances of both domestic, child and sexual abuse, while also not properly punishing those players whose stories had come to light. Names like Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Ben Roethlisberger come to mind. However, the NFL is not the only party responsible for the problematic culture surrounding women’s issues in sports.
As an enormous hockey fan, I can also acknowledge that the National Hockey League often does not take responsibility for punishing the actions of its players. While the league has suspended abusers like Los Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov while those players are under investigation, there is currently no league-wide policy regarding domestic violence charges. In addition, multiple NHL players have been accused of sexual violence, and their accusers have been disrespected by both the media and fans. The league administration across the five major sports, including the NHL, NFL, MLB, NBA and MLS has a social responsibility to do more to protect women who have been violated by their athletes. The NCAA, an administrative body with a multitude of its own issues, should also be included in this directive.
Leagues like the NFL and the NHL have programs that center around women’s engagement, as well as domestic abuse training. The NFL even has a website for their women’s engagement initiative, which includes features like “NFL Wife Spotlight.” According to the website, “Women’s Resource Initiative is where we at NFL Player Engagement want to engage the women of football to share their stories, voice their opinions, find resources, and participate in broader discussions on social and community issues.” Mission statements like this are, to put it kindly, bogus, if the culture and conversation in sports surrounding abuse does not change. Nearly five million women in the United States experience physical assault by an intimate partner every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, per the National Sexual Violence Resource center, one in five women in the United States will be raped in their lifetime. And these are just women whose abuses have been documented. If major leagues in the US are serious about fostering a community in professional athletics that is inclusive of women, then they need to handle the issue of domestic and sexual violence more seriously. Commercials with the tagline, “Football is Family,” and initiatives to spotlight the mothers and wives of players are simply not enough.
And this need for change does not just include the leagues. It includes the media coverage, especially by popular programs like Sports Center. Per Statista, ESPN averaged 61.9 million viewers in a seven day period in the spring quarter of 2017 in the United States alone. This kind of reach is incredible. When it comes to sports news, there is no network that stands even close to as tall as this industry giant owned by Disney. A substantive conversation about the epidemic of abuse not only in this country but in sports in particular would go a long way in changing the attitude towards victims and abusers in the major leagues in this country. Conversations or panels about the accountability of players and the responsibility of leagues in situations of abuse would certainly contribute much more to changing the culture in professional athletics than a conversation about fantasy football.
The NFL can market more feminine cut jerseys; the NHL can tweet support for efforts of the US Women’s Hockey team; and the MLB can start a fellowship program for women and people of color, but until both professional leagues and the media outlets that cover them start – and don’t stop – having serious conversations about abuse and its effect on women, efforts like these will never be enough to include women in the community of professional athletics.