I didn’t see it on Superbowl Sunday because I didn’t watch the Superbowl. But I was intrigued when I heard on the Friday morning news that the NFL was sponsoring a Public Service Announcement by a group called No More. No More’s website describes it as a movement designed to end domestic violence and sexual assault:
NO MORE is a movement to raise public awareness and engage bystanders around ending domestic violence and sexual assault launched in 2013 by a coalition of leading corporations, advocacy and service organizations. NO MORE is supported by hundreds of domestic violence and sexual assault organizations at the local, state and national levels that are using its signature blue symbol to increase visibility and funding to address these critical issues. Any individual, organization, or corporation that wants to end domestic violence and sexual assault can use the NO MORE symbol to show their commitment to this cause.
The Superbowl is known for its big production ads, and the spot donated to the PSA was worth $5,000,000.00.
The chilling ad is based on a real 911 phone call in which a woman pretends to order a pizza so that her abuser, who is in the room, doesn’t know that she’s calling for help. Here’s the psa:
Over a hundred million people tuned in the game yesterday, so that’s a lot of exposure for a campaign against domestic violence — an issue that rarely gets its due.
But the ad is not without its critics. First of all, the league responded minimally to the Ray Rice incident. In a sickening video that went viral last summer, player Ray Rice punched his then fiance (now spouse) in an elevator so hard he knocked her out. A video surveillance camera caught the entire appalling incident on film, including Rice subsequently dragging his partner out of the elevator like a sack of potatoes.
The league’s initial response to the incident: Rice was “suspended for the first two games of this season for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy following his offseason arrest for domestic violence.”
But there’s more: “Rice also was fined an additional regular-season game check but is eligible to participate in training camp and all of Baltimore’s preseason games, the NFL announced.”
After saying how disappointed he was to be missing out on some games, Rice said:
My goal is to earn back the trust of the people, especially the children, I let down because of this incident. I am a role model and I take that responsibility seriously. My actions going forward will show that.
His coach said:
It’s not a big deal. It’s just part of the process. We said from the beginning that the circumstances would determine the consequences. There are consequences when you make a mistake like that. I stand behind Ray. He’s a heck of a guy. He’s done everything right since. He makes a mistake. He’s going to have to pay a consequence.
Yep, he’s one heck of a guy.
Then the video came out. It’s so awful that I’m not even going to link to it. When people saw the film, the league responded more severely with an indefinite suspension.
Airing the No More PSA is one tiny step in the direction of repairing its reputation for tolerating this kind of violence.
In an article in The Guardian, Jessica Valenti notes that “a 30-second spot doesn’t undo the years of damage the NFL has wrought on domestic violence issues, nor does it change the culture of violence and coverups that plague the league.”
And in an article on Feministing, Mychal Denzel Smith talks about the type of masculinity the NFL promotes. That, he says, is what we need to be talking about. That is what the NFL could take a lead role in re-shaping:
The NFL is in a unique position, as one of the most visible arbiters of the cultural definition of masculinity. That definition of masculinity as dominant, violent, and controlling contributes to a culture in which violence against women is not regarded as a serious enough issue to warrant collective outrage. The NFL could be fostering a dialogue with men about how and why this definition of masculinity is dangerous and oppressive. It could be engaging boys and young men in an unlearning process and re-education around the values embedded in these archaic forms of masculinity, and questioning the health and vitality of those models. It should be starting that engagement and dialogue with its players and personnel.
Not wanting to be completely negative, he says:
Again, I don’t want to completely shit on this ad. Millions upon millions of people are going to see it and be forced to reckon with it during a time in which they’d like to run away from the issue. They will have to remember that some people don’t have the privilege of turning away. Conversations will be had.
However, this ad also doesn’t really demand anything more from us than the status quo. At the end, it says “When it’s hard to talk, it’s up to us to listen.” But if the only thing we’re being asked to do is have compassion after someone has already experienced violence, we’re accepting that violence as a part of culture. We’re conceding something I’d rather not — that we can’t prevent men from beating women. We can only care for these women’s wounds.
That’s an important observation. We don’t just need to have compassion for women who experience domestic violence, we need to address the cultural assumptions about masculinity that are at the root of violence against women to begin with. Violence does not need to be part of our culture.
But how much respect for women does football actually promote? I love Mariah Burton Nelson’s book The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football. Amazon provides this summary of her main thesis:
This eye-opening book links gender-based pay and scholarship inequity with male violence and male domination in sports and society at large. As this book points out, athletes who rape and male coaches who brag of beating their wives are often dismissed by our culture with a “boys will be boys” attitude. Formerly competitive co-ed sports have been replaced with sex-segregated sports after a woman wins against male competitors. Those dubious signals sent to boys such as “don’t throw like a girl” are all designed to glorify masculinity and keep it safe from so-called female interference and contamination.
When did that book come out? Twenty years ago, in 1995.
I heard today that last night’s game was the most watched event in television history, breaking records for tv and social media. You might say that’s a lot of people getting exposed to the 30-second version of the No More PSA. And that’s true.
But the game is a lot longer than 30 seconds. And what it represents in the fabric of North America society is a fairly entrenched tradition that embraces, with very little critical commentary, a mainstream and disturbing view of masculinity.
It’s that very understanding of masculinity that contributes to a culture in which women count for less and where a first reasonable response to knocking your fiance unconscious is a three-game suspension.