In the current national furor over domestic violence and child abuse issues within the National Football League, the missing ingredient is a familiar one: leadership. When an organization, a business, a system of justice or an individual has a moral compass and clear core values, it’s easy to do the right thing, consistently.
But when those core values are missing, we get the chain of random events triggered by an elevator video of a football player pounding his fiancée senseless.
It takes a strong leader to create and sustain a culture that values all people equally and that has zero tolerance for physical or emotional abuse. But those are the leaders we need today. They could give other leaders the courage to join them in growing public awareness that domestic violence and child abuse are intolerable.
That failure of leadership goes beyond NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, although he is a deserving lightning rod for our anger. Team owners and coaches have failed us by keeping players on the field because they are needed to win, and winning means money.
Without strong national leadership, each team is free to treat its abusers and suspected abusers differently. Some play, some sit. Some are kicked off teams, some are making millions while awaiting trial.
It makes no sense, but that’s what happens when leadership fails us.
It’s in that vacuum of leadership that a New Jersey prosecutor can give the Baltimore Ravens’ player, Ray Rice, whose knock-out punch started this national debate, a sweetheart deal not used in 99 percent of the state’s domestic violence assault cases.
It’s that lack of leadership that enticed the Carolina Panthers to play their defensive end Greg Hardy in the first game of the season despite his conviction of horrific crimes against a woman. He is appealing the verdict, but after the Rice video, the Panthers benched him for game two, and then reversed themselves saying Hardy would play in game three. The Panthers’ moral compass is spinning.
Without strong league leadership on domestic violence, the Minnesota Vikings are confused about what to do with star running back Adrian Peterson, who whipped his four-year-old son with a stick, leaving welts and bruises all over his little body. At first they suspended Peterson, then they reinstated him, then they suspended him again.
Many other teams are similarly confused. The San Francisco 49ers are allowing Ray McDonald to play after his arrest for allegedly beating his pregnant girlfriend because he has not yet been charged. Even our beloved Seattle Seahawks once protected linebacker Leroy Hill, who was twice accused of violence against his girlfriend.
Fortunately for us, the rest of our society is changing faster than the NFL. Police don’t just walk away from domestic disputes any more. College campuses are finally confronting the frat-boy culture that has led to sexual assaults on young women who drank too much or were even unconscious. Our military is finally facing the painful truths about a long history of abuse within its ranks.
None of this means we’re finished; far from it. But we are, as a society, at least on the right road and headed in the right direction. The NFL needs to join us, now.