Education Opinion

Pro Sports Players, Leaders, and Domestic Violence

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 16, 2014 6 min read
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It is football season, lights come on for night games and everyone turns out for weekend games...they are social and sports events both. From Pop Warner to the NFL, football is fall in America. We never guessed that this season of the NFL would cause us to write about leadership and American values. But, here we are. Surprising things happen.

Watching Cult Heros and Their Leaders
Since Roman days, people have gathered to watch men in arenas. The human story seems to include society’s appetite for sport and games. Sometimes those games produce cult heroes; sometimes, they reflect a culture’s latent violence. All are about winning... or surviving, as in Hunger Games. The best at the game, in contemporary America, get paid millions of dollars a year by teams and the rest of us pay to watch them play and try to buy what they endorse in commercials. They carry an aura and we care about their lives off field as well. Our youth see them as models and we use them, often after they retire, for fund raising and as motivators. We worry about their injuries and the concussions of our youth who aspire to be like them. We collect their cards and line up for autographs. They are rich and famous and the best in their field.

These past few weeks, however, the down side of all of that fame has touched even those among us who don’t watch the games. Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Roger Goodell are showing us the dark side of it. Intimate personal lives, in all the confused ways they play out, have grabbed the conscience of the nation. Videos, bruises, marriages, divorces and a hope it would all go away, quietly, converged on the big media stage and raised very important questions for us as they did. The social and moral conscience of who we are is right in front of us. As school leaders we need to be watching; we need to be considering the players, their actions and excuses but more importantly, even for us, we need to pay attention to Roger Goodell, head of the NFL.

Domestic Violence
The story begins with Ray Rice who hits his then finance in an elevator and drags her out; she is unconscious. The woman continues to marry him. Yes, therein, is another aspect of the problem. She says the media has ruined their lives. Isn’t perspective everything? Roger Goodell talks to Rice and looks at the lobby video and imposes a few game suspension penalty, indicating that it was a bad deed. Didn’t all thinking people know it wouldn’t end there, certainly not in this day and age. The next video is released. It is the one from inside the elevator. We can now all see Rice hit the woman he purportedly loves, knocking her unconscious, dragging her from the elevator and walking away as she lies on the floor face down. Reaction is immediate, seeing her get hit changes it all. Goodell makes a new decision. Rice is done for now....fired by the Ravens and indefinitely suspended by the NFL. But, of course, there is more. Didn’t Goodell know there would be more? What was going on inside the NFL as this unfolded?

Wouldn’t it be helpful to us, trying to understand leadership decision-making in a crisis, if there were an inside video of that as well? But, no, only a new tape...this one of a call between the police and someone inside the NFL. Goodell contends he didn’t know it all when he made his first decision that a few games were enough punishment. We don’t know yet but now the former head of the FBI is involved. So, we are left wondering: what is Roger Goodell’s personal stand on domestic violence and how does it relate to his role within his sport? We do know it isn’t playing out well for him and he seems to have underestimated the technology of the day where secrets of any kind are very hard to keep hidden. It could end here, but it doesn’t. As leaders we know that place....the one where we say it’s a bad day and it can get worse.

Along comes the Vikings’ 29 year old, running back Adrian Peterson, indicted in Texas for negligent injury to a child as a result of a “whooping” he gave his 4 year old son. Immediately the NFL’s new policy is tested. Peterson’s domestic violence involves a child and raises controversy about parental right to discipline. Peterson and others argue they were spanked and got the “switch” as children and they loved their parents and turned out fine. Yes, there are regional, cultural, religious and generational differences with regard to how to discipline children. Doesn’t Roger Goodell wish it were simple?

Zero Tolerance
A 2011 CNN report revealed that, at that time, no countries in North America banned physical punishment by parents. The report said “about 80% of American parents said they’ve hit their young children, and about 100,000 kids are paddled in U.S. schools every year.” In that same article, Elizabeth Gershoff, associate professor of human development and family services at the University of Texas at Austin was quoted:

Kids are still hit with hands, belts, switches and paddles, despite research that shows it doesn’t model or teach behavior parents are looking for, that it damages trust between parent and children and that it can lead to increased aggression.

The Topeka-Capital Journal printed an article in February of this year that reported on a bill in their House Committee on Corrections and Juvenile Justice that would “allow parents to spank their children to the point of bruising and give teachers permission to do so as well.

If we, as a nation, were to stand up and take the same zero tolerance view that is now taking hold against domestic violence and include children...might we be taking a step toward reducing violence in our society as a whole? Might we be taking a step toward reducing a potential for mental health challenges facing our youth?

A 2012 article published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics reported the results of a study on the topic.

Harsh physical punishment in the absence of child maltreatment is associated with mood disorders, anxiety disorders, substance abuse/dependence, and personality disorders in a general population sample. These findings inform the ongoing debate around the use of physical punishment and provide evidence that harsh physical punishment independent of child maltreatment is related to mental disorders.

We, as a nation struggle with these issues, and the NFL under Roger Goodell’s watch, has come center stage. We have watched the NFL face a systemic problem, tread lightly on resolving it, and find it returning in an unrelenting way. From NOW to POP Warner, Roger Goodell’s ethics and values are on the line. He hopes for a good ...not a great quarterback...to call his next play and he needs a coach for leadership. Where do we go for help in a crisis; to whom do we turn? His current condition gives us a moment to pause and think about ourselves.

Taking Action
Should we refrain from entering the domestic violence fray because what happens at home isn’t our business? Can we take another thing on? Do we have a choice? According to the research, there is a connection between hitting children and mental health and violence. Since we struggle with how to help aggressive children and those battling mental health issues, isn’t it worth our time to advocate for prevention? Now might be exactly the right time to open and keep open the discussion about considering domestic abuse, physical punishment of children and where we are as a nation and as a community. And we hope that Roger Goodell becomes clear and strong about his own values and speaks to the issue in words and actions. He is the leader, his field obviously needs it, and it might help us as well.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.