“I think everybody is learning. Everybody is more aware.” Facing reporters on September 12, San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh was struggling to put the myriad of physical abuse scandals in perspective. You could feel his reticence as he searched for the right words. Even for an coach regarded as one of best thinkers in the NFL, it was an uncomfortable news conference on a disquieting subject.
But the more he talked, the more Harbaugh found his voice. And, in a way, the voice of America. He continued, “(Everybody) is taking the opportunity to be aware of domestic violence. Just how many people it affects. Just see what we can do to grow and learn.” He was right. We’ve got a lot to learn. And it is a painful process.
Consider the facts. A woman is beaten by her husband or boyfriend every 15 seconds in the U.S.So says the FBI, which tracks the chilling numbers. It is the leading cause of injury to women, more than car accidents, muggings and rapes combined. Upwards of 4 million women.
If you think it’s only a problem among violence-prone NFL football players, you’re wrong. It happens among people of all races, ages, socio-economic classes, religious affiliations, occupations, and educational backgrounds. And the battering tends to increase and become more violent over time.
It is even worse for children. On average, between 4 and 7 children die every day from abuse at the hands of adults. America has one of the worst records among industrialized nations.
Many batterers learned their violent behavior growing up in an abusive family. Vikings football star Adrian Peterson, indicted for beating his 4 year old son with a tree branch causing bloody lacerations and bruises, said he endured similar beatings as a child. But at some point, the chain of abuse, often extending back generations, needs to be broken.
Which brings us back to coach Harbaugh who faces criticism for refusing to bench one of his own players, Ray McDonald, over a domestic abuse accusation, unless or until a criminal charge is ever brought.
Addressing reporters, Harbaugh said there was something positive that’s been lost in all the negative attention, “Hopefully, we’ll be better for it, not just as a football team, but as a society.”
Perhaps Harbaugh envisions what NFL executives do not: amid the wreckage, an opportunity presents itself. Increased scrutiny and heightened awareness of what seems to be a domestic abuse epidemic can, if handled correctly, precipitate needed change in both attitudes and behavior. But it remains to be seen whether team owners or Roger Goodell are listening. Judging from the Commissioner’s news conference Friday, he is still tone deaf.
Goodell continues to play defense in a public relations nightmare that demands a good and constructive offense. Instead of defending weak policies and now, belatedly, promising harsher penalties, the NFL should lead the way in a vigorous public campaign to educate Americans that abuse of women and children is not just illegal, but wrong.
A long and sustained “Campaign to Stop Abuse” or “Campaign Against Violence,” call it what you will, could reach tens of millions of Americans. Players, coaches and football celebrities could use their respected voices to speak out against violence toward women and children.
Beyond mere public service announcements, the NFL and its teams could purchase or donate television time to articulate the cause.
Imagine the impact of a 30 second commercial during a televised football game featuring Peyton Manning or Cam Newton urging Americans to stop the abuse.
Sponsors could get involved. Professional football could reach deep into communities to partner with local campaigns.
An aggressive approach to this insidious problem could prove instrumental in altering a poisonous culture of violence. If effective, it could reduce the staggering statistics of victims and save lives.
The financial cost of such a campaign is paltry, especially when weighed against the human cost. And the NFL has money to burn. While it has been shy about releasing data, it is estimated that the League earns roughly $ 10 billion in annual revenue. Its revenue goal is $ 25 billion by 2027. That kind of income exceeds the GDP of many small nations. And the audience for an anti-violence campaign is ready-made. Network televised games average around 20 million viewers. The Super Bowl alone is watched by about 110 million.
The NFL has at its disposal the wealth, celebrity and power to change the way Americans treat women and children. Does it have the will?
Gregg Jarrett is a Fox News legal analyst and former defense attorney.