Is the NFL Finally Sticking Up For Women?

Slate's Culture Blog
April 21 2010 5:42 PM

Is the NFL Finally Sticking Up For Women?

Since becoming NFL commissioner in 2006, Roger Goodell has punished players for offenses ranging from substance abuse to gun possession to manslaughter to dog fighting. What's notable about Ben Roethlisberger's six-game suspension is that the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback got suspended by the NFL despite escaping prosecution . Even though Roethlisberger won't be charged with sexually assaulting a Georgia college student, Goodell told the quarterback that his suspension was warranted because "you are held to a higher standard as an NFL player, and there is nothing about your conduct ... that can remotely be described as admirable, responsible, or consistent with either the values of the league or the expectations of our fans."

I'm not a fan of Goodell's suspend-'em-all policies in view of the league's shoddy treatment of retired players who've suffered brain injuries, the "values" the commissioner cites seem to begin and end with the banishment of perceived thuggery. But while I think it's a dangerous precedent for a sports commissioner to suspend someone who wasn't charged with a crime, it's promising to see a sports league hold its athletes to any kind of standard when it comes to the treatment of women.

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American sports leagues have a sorry history of domestic abuse and sexual assault. As this Deadspin post catalogs, Major League Baseball has gone easy on wife beaters. In 2006, to take one recent example, then-Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Brett Myers was allowed to make his next start after being arrested for slapping his wife outside Boston's Fenway Park in full view of witnesses. The NBA, too, took no action after future Hall of Famer Jason Kidd was arrested for hitting his wife in 2001. For good or ill, Kobe Bryant was never suspended by the NBA during his sexual assault case . (Charges were eventually dropped.) In the instances when punishments have been levied, they haven't been particularly severe. Ten-year NBA veteran Ruben Patterson, who pleaded guilty to attempted rape in 2001, had to sit out a mere five games for his offense.

The NFL's track record isn't any better. Before Goodell's tenure, Packers tight end Mark Chmura wasn't suspended after being accused of raping his babysitter in 2000. (Chmura was acquitted in 2001.) In 2007, as Michael Vick got pilloried for leading a dog-fighting ring, an obscure running back named Lionel Gates avoided league sanction after being accused of "kicking a pregnant woman's door in, destroying her property, hitting her in the face and pushing her into a wall after arguing about whether he is the father of the woman's unborn child." The two stars of the 2009 Super Bowl, Larry Fitzgerald and Santonio Holmes, played in the big game despite prior accusations of domestic abuse .

Does Roethlisberger's six-game sentence indicate that the NFL is finally taking a stand against the sports world's biggest blight? It could be that the league is focused primarily on public relations considering that the Steelers QB was accused of sexual assault last year , Goodell needed to step in before Roethlisberger torched pro football's reputation. A better test of whether the NFL is cracking down on misogynistic misbehavior is how Goodell deals with Leroy Hill. If the not-so-famous Seattle Seahawks linebacker, who was arrested this month for domestic assault , gets a Roethlisberger-esque suspension, then Goodell will send a message that he won't tolerate violence toward women and perhaps other leagues will feel pressure to follow pro football's lead. If Hill skates, then it will be clear what the NFL's suspensions are really about: protecting the league's image.

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

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