Watching the NFL for another reason

Every year I proclaim that I’m going to catch football fever. This year during the pre-season, I made that same proclamation. After all, the women in my family, even my mother, are diehard fans, the kind who sport their jerseys on Sundays and wear their colors proudly win or lose. The kind that trash talk each other – split between the Dallas Cowboys (mom’s team) and the Washington Redskins.

I’ve never been one to schedule my weekends around football. I only know when a good game is on television or when the Atlanta Falcons have a home game because the pews at church tend to thin out for 11:30 Sunday morning worship. (A subject for another day.)

But this season my interest in the NFL was heightened by what’s happening with accusations of domestic violence and child abuse by some of its so-called outstanding (on the field) players.

Unlike women who have decided to abandon their interest in football as a result of some questionable player actions followed by questionable league response, I’ve become much more interested in watching games.

Admittedly, while I may be watching more this season, I still don’t know much about the game. I played powder puff football in high school a time or two, but that’s about it for me. I do, however, have personal experience with domestic violence, having watched a close female relative put up with it for many years. I’ve also read many sad accounts of child abuse as I reviewed case files of children during my recent adoption process.

With this in mind, let me explain my heightened interest. Really it has nothing to do with the game. I’m watching pre- and post-game interviews to follow the conversation, to see how the men of the field may respond or react to public criticism of the NFL. I’m curious what players think and how they act.

I want to see for myself whether all the promises NFL commissioner Roger Goodell made during a news conference Sept. 19 will follow suit with a change in the player’s attitudes. Goodell promised that by the Super Bowl there would be new personal conduct policies for players and others in the league.

He promised that the league would condemn and punish behavior that’s unacceptable.

He said he’s accountable for the change.

Well, Mr. Goodell, this first-time female fan will be watching.

Goodell said in his news conference that the recent incidents “demonstrate that we can use the NFL to help create change, not only in our league but in society with respect to domestic violence and sexual assault.”

The NFL for many years has set out to court women. I believe that courtship has been severely damaged over the last few weeks and months.

Thank you for the Sept. 19 public apology Mr. Goodell. I appreciate your acknowledgment that you “didn’t get it right,” but tell that to the victims who reached out to domestic violence hotlines in the days following the release of a video that showed Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee Janay Palmer. Call volume to the National Domestic Violence Hotline increased significantly, according to the organization.

I also appreciate that the NFL has pledged support to the organization through a long-term partnership, but why did it have to take a national controversy for that to happen. It’s not like the issue is new.

Sometimes better late than never is just not an acceptable. But I do commend the effort because domestic violence victims are paying attention, especially women. They are seeking ways to be heard now, perhaps more than ever before.

I asked our Falcons reporter Darryl Ledbetter (known in his byline as D. Orlando Ledbetter) about his impressions of the NFL’s female audience and whether recent news had prompted an increased response from women given recent NFL domestic issues.

Darryl says that more and more women are engaging with football, especially through social media. “Our female audience engages with us daily with questions, comments and observations,” he said. “They are vocal and passionate about football.”

But Darryl said he has not seen an increased response from women in light of the recent domestic violence issues. He said that would be hard to quantify, however it’s clear from commentary that women “seem to want the league to take a stronger stance on domestic violence and try to serve as a leader to help eradicate it.”

He believes the Falcons were somewhat ahead of the curve on dealing with domestic violence by not re-signing linebacker Michael Boley after the 2008 season in part because of his alleged role in a domestic violence case involving his wife. At the time, Boley was 26 and on the verge of being a Pro Bowl-level player and set to enter his prime years in the league, said Darryl. Boley later signed a five-year contract with the New York Giants.

Like me, I think a lot of female football fans will be paying closer attention to the game, the players and the actions of the NFL.

“Football is deeply ingrained in the community. I try to respond to questions [from women] that I receive via Twitter or email. I also try to make a point to respond to their comments left on blogs. When there are special awareness or educational programs directed at women, I try to make sure that we write about them.”

I’m proud that Darryl is paying attention. The media has its own responsibilities in its coverage of not just the game but controversy in the league as well.

I just hope the players understand their responsibility. To me it, matters none what Goodell said or how the NFL players’ association responds if players don’t take personal responsibility for their actions.

A woman quoted in a recent New York Times column on this issue said the NFL should “seize this moment. How they handle these cases going forward can help shape how we as a nation, as a society and as individuals treat domestic violence and child abuse.”

I couldn’t agree more.

So, now, who’s playing this weekend?

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