There is only one force in the world powerful enough to enact change in the National Football League, and contrary to popular belief, it’s not the commissioner, the courts, the corporate sponsors or even the paying customers. It’s the players.
Football fans – and, really, anyone with a conscience – are beside themselves yet again, after the release of gruesome photos that showed the aftermath of Greg Hardy’s assault on then-girlfriend Nicole Holder. These days, it is apparently not enough to merely know acts of violence occurred (Hardy was arrested in May 2014, and his domestic violence chargers weren’t dismissed until February); we must now see the end results first-hand in order to be appropriately outraged. After all, it took the blowback caused by the infamous Ray Rice elevator video for the NFL to decide his actions apparently warranted more than their initial two-game ban.
But where has all that outrage gotten us? Despite predictions that the Rice case would doom the NFL, the league has never been more popular. Revenue is up, TV ratings are at an all-time high and advertising during games is more expensive than ever. We, the consumers, have a funny way of displaying our moral outrage, don’t we?
So if there is to be meaningful change in the way the NFL does business, in its acceptance of misfits and monsters, it’s not going to come from any of us. It has to come from within. It has to come from the players and the union that represents them.
Think back to this summer in the thick of the “Deflategate” controversy. It was the NFL Players Association that got Tom Brady off the hook. That legal soap opera, as unappealing and as annoying as it became, exhibited the full power of the union against the NFL. For it was the union that hammered Brady’s four-game suspension down to nothing, same as it broke the indefinite suspension shackled on Rice, the ban imposed on Adrian Peterson and oh, yes, the 10-game suspension Hardy was originally sentenced to for beating his ex-girlfriend before the union came in and chopped it down to four games.
Since Hardy returned to the NFL he’s been a train wreck. He’s offered zero remorse, save for some tweets over the weekend after the pictures of his handiwork were made public by Deadspin. He’s offered some prickly interviews with the media, talked about coming out with guns blazing, made some comments about Brady’s wife, engaged in a physical altercation on the sideline with a special teams coach and got into a heated argument with teammate Dez Bryant. To the untrained eye, Hardy has shown a long line of troublesome behavior, but Dallas owner Jerry Jones continues to come out in support of his most volatile athlete. He’s called Hardy a leader and an inspiration, which has got to be incredibly insulting to actual team leaders and inspiring characters like Tony Romo and Jason Witten and even Bryant, who survived a hellish upbringing to make it all the way to the NFL.
Yet, those guys have remained relatively silent, with Romo even offering tepid support for Hardy. Just like Rice’s teammates and Peterson’s teammates and even Aaron Hernandez’s teammates. Until that silence is broken, nothing will ever change.
CBS analyst Bill Cowher piled on with the rest of the talking heads this weekend, but he made an excellent point when he said, “Ninety-nine percent of the players in National Football League, they get it. Greg Hardy doesn’t get it.”
He’s right. Most NFL players don’t get arrested or beat on women or endanger the welfare of kids or wind up in jail. So where are their voices? Aren’t they ashamed? Aren’t they angry that their reputation is being slandered by a small minority of bad guys? This has got to be the saddest example of a silent majority in history.
Stand up and say something already. Better yet, do something already.
Athletes have attempted to take social stands before. Last year, the St. Louis Rams stood against racial injustice with their “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” protest. There were similar silent protests by NBA players like LeBron James. NHL players have stood up for gay rights. Few athletes did more to smash the stereotypes associated with HIV and AIDS as Magic Johnson did in the 1990s. In the 1940s, when Jackie Robinson was the target of sickening racial slurs as he broke Major League Baseball’s color line, Brooklyn teammate Pee Wee Reese literally and figuratively embraced him in a critical public show of support.
It’s obviously a complicated issue. After all, NFL players are fined for showing support of the most worthy causes. Just this season, the Steelers’ Cameron Heyward was reportedly fined by the league for writing his dead father’s nickname, Ironhead, on his eyeblack, in a tribute to the cancer victim and former NFL great. Heyward’s teammate, William Gay, whose mother lost her life to domestic violence, was fined for wearing purple cleats in an attempt to spread awareness of that epidemic.
This weekend, players on the University of Missouri football team, amid a rash of racist and anti-Semitic incidents on campus, announced that they would not practice or play until university president Tim Wolfe left office. They were on strike, and they had the full support of their coaches. They said they’d had enough, that the school had not acted to stop the siege. The same team that embraced and protected Michael Sam’s sexuality for a year before he came out publicly was taking yet another stand for social justice. On Monday, Wolfe announced his resignation.
The NFL could learn a lot from those kids.
What would happen if the entire Dallas Cowboys team threatened to sit out every game until Hardy was released? What if the Washington Redskins refused to put on their jerseys until Daniel Snyder changed the name of the team? What if NFL players finally stood up and said they aren’t going to take this anymore?
While those scenarios are highly unlikely, they would be powerful enough to start changing things, wouldn’t they? NFL contracts are not guaranteed and every one of those players could be cut, but would they really all lose their jobs while standing together as one? In the history of pro sports, no single group has held more power to enact serious change, from free agency to rules designed to improve safety to shining a light on social issues that transcend sports than the players themselves.
Sunday night, in the first game since the Hardy images were released, Eagles tackle Lane Johnson admitted he was putting “extra mustard” on his blocks against Hardy. Philly center Jason Kelce added voice to what a lot fans have been thinking.
“I’m glad he didn’t have a good day,” Kelce told reporters after the Eagles beat Dallas in overtime and Hardy missed the quarterback on the game-winning touchdown. “It’s a joke a guy like that is able to play this quickly.”
Well, that’s a start. But there are likely more players who feel the same way. Maybe it’s time we heard from them, too.