Karine Jean-Pierre
Subscribe To
The Advocate
Scroll To Top

Op-ed: Ray Rice, a Broken NFL Culture, and How to Fix It

Op-ed: Ray Rice, a Broken NFL Culture, and How to Fix It

When an NFL player renders his fiancée unconscious with a knockout punch and the league is willfully neglectful in its investigation, anyone who supports equality should take notice — and here’s why.

We talk about football like it’s just a game, but it is much more than that. It is a $10 billion industry and a cultural force in this country governed by a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization: the NFL. It must be held accountable by every fan paying money to watch its games or buy its merchandise.

It owes more to every parent who allows their son to play a vicious, violent sport that could one day damage his brain and psyche so badly that he becomes suicidal or harmful to other people, like Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs, who shot and killed the mother of his children before turning the gun on himself in 2012. 

The NFL owes more to Native American groups who want Washington's team name changed because it is an outright insult to an entire people. It owes more to its closeted gay players and LGBT fans who have yet to be fully embraced. And it certainly owes more to its own cheerleaders, who are exploited through improper pay and poor working conditions. Football owes more to all of us.

The NFL is a broken culture with a lack of diversity at the root of the problem. In football it is commonplace to demean and marginalize women, LGBT people, or anyone who does not fit its cultural norm. Whether it’s trying to brush aside criminal behavior like Rice’s brutal attack or perpetuating the discriminatory climate that made it almost impossible for Michael Sam to get a job in the league, this outdated mindset is rooted in the same basic value system where behind closed doors, it is still acceptable for a teammate to call another player “my bitch” or use the F word.

These examples of how sexism and homophobia tango together in the league also surfaced in the Miami Dolphins locker room when Jonathan Martin was bullied. Martin was called all these names and more, and his sister was repeatedly verbally degraded with crude talk of sexual acts to be performed on her. The intention of this harassment and its more subtle forms is to convey a simple point: You are a lesser man than me; know you are weaker than me. This perpetuates an orthodox concept of masculinity that promotes sexist, misogynistic, and antifeminine attitudes that devolve the entire culture.

For example, where was the respect given by Commissioner Roger Goodell to all women attacked each year by a spouse or partner? Doesn’t every domestic abuse incident, even one committed by a star NFL player, merit a full and faithful investigation and punishment? Or does respecting women become a luxury when faced with the distraction of having to punish as high-profile a player as Rice as an attacker? The commissioner took action only when TMZ forced his hand by releasing the elevator video of the attack. That's not leadership. It’s not even leading from behind.

With outrage at the NFL at an all-time high, there is no guarantee that its popularity will remain so untouchable. Not with participation in youth football falling by 9.5 percent a year, largely due to concern over concussions. Not when at least three other alleged domestic abusers still have jobs on NFL teams, and not when who you love still keeps so many deeply closeted.

Everyone who cares about sports must stand together and challenge an insulated industry composed almost exclusively of men who are more intent on protecting the gladiator brand and profit-driven status quo than making the NFL shield stand for something other than television greed and violent glory. Together, we can send a powerful message that any form of discrimination will not be tolerated. Together, we will all benefit. This change must occur now. Until the NFL acknowledges and proactively tackles its many cultural failures, I will not watch another game. Will you?


SAM MARCHIANO worked in sports media for over 20 years as an anchor, reporter, and producer and was a founding member of the Athlete Ally board of directors. Knowing that allyship played a crucial role in her ability to address gender issues as female sports reporter during her years at MLB.com, ESPN, Fox Sports and the New York Daily News, she now devotes herself fully to this advocacy. She is a graduate of Columbia University and currently teaches at New York University's Institute of Sports Management, Media, and Business.

Tags: Voices, Sports, Women, NFL

From our Sponsors