Politics & Policy

The Media’s Absurd NFL Hysteria

Adrian Peterson (Getty Images)
Why do we expect practitioners of a violent sport, beloved of millions, to set anti-violence standards?

During the past few weeks, two sets of initials have dominated the news — ISIL and NFL — and the casual listener would be hard-pressed to decide which is more odious.

It’s a wonder that President Barack Obama hasn’t pledged to bring NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to justice.

Such is the weight the press has put on the NFL’s punishment of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for punching his then-fiancée that Denis McDonough, the president’s chief of staff, had to weigh in on Meet the Press: “We all know Ray Rice being suspended indefinitely seems to be exactly the right thing.”

On the NFL, the media has lost its collective mind. It’s as if the people who masterminded CNN’s programming after the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 have been put in charge of all press coverage of the NFL, and they brought to the task the same sense of proportion, good taste, and dignity that characterized the network’s handling of the missing plane.

The coverage of the Rice elevator video managed to combine moralistic preening with voyeuristic pandering. Everyone on TV professed to be so outraged by domestic violence that they had to show a clip of a woman getting viciously punched, over and over again (until many of the networks finally recoiled from their own overkill).

At least the NFL gets its ratings by broadcasting images of men hitting other men.

In recent weeks, you’d think that the fate of justice in America depends on how harshly the NFL punishes a few miscreants. Only if Ray Rice and accused child-abuser Adrian Peterson are banished can women and children be safe from violence and abuse.

This is patently absurd. The NFL is a sports league. More specifically, it is a business that stages violent spectacles that will damage the brains of some significant portion of its participants. We shouldn’t expect it to set our society’s standards.

No matter how many sermons we hear to the contrary, the NFL is not the key to fighting domestic violence. Domestic violence declined 63 percent from 1994 to 2012, according to the Justice Department — even though the NFL had a lenient policy toward domestic abusers across this period.

Nor is the NFL the sink of criminality you might assume from the headlines. Benjamin Morris of FiveThirtyEight writes that “arrest rates among NFL players are quite low compared to national averages for men in their age range” (although domestic violence accounts for a disproportionate share of the arrests for violent crimes).

It is true that Ray Rice should have gotten more than the initial two-game suspension for his shocking assault on Janay, and the NFL needs a clear, certain policy for punishing such offenses.

This should occupy every sports journalist eager to validate his or her seriousness by delving into social commentary (which is to say, most of them). It shouldn’t be a dominant news story across all media — for weeks.

No one seems to care how the vortex of outrage affects the victim, Janay, who married Rice after the incident. She gets to see that horrible night replayed everywhere, to hear people bray for the end of her husband’s career, and to receive lectures from people who presume to know what’s best for her and her marriage.

Now, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson is the new focus of outrage. Facing child-abuse charges for disciplining his son with a switch, he is taken as a symbol of the noxiousness of all corporal punishment.

This is all so wildly disproportionate that perhaps something more than the usual ax-grinding, ratings chase, and group think is at work. It may be that these cases are ways to express a deeper discomfort with the NFL, which sacrifices men’s bodies and minds for our viewing pleasure every week.

That, of course, is something in which everyone who enjoys football is implicated and isn’t such a ready subject for table-thumping condemnations.

— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com. © 2014 King Features Syndicate

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