Fake afro tugged onto his head, an early arrival at FedEx Field checked the status of his cooler. Four hours before kickoff, dressed in emphatically patterned pants consisting of Redskins burgundy and gold, this fan’s alcohol supply was dwindling, which was cause for concern.
Around him, parking spaces began to fill. Hatches opened, tent legs were popped and the tailgate festivities had begun before the traditional work day had ended. The parking lots at FedEx filled continued to fill as the sun fell. Fans in jerseys — from Cooley to Kerrigan — managed barbecues and pulled on another layer to counter the stern breeze.
Another event night in the NFL, the most powerful sports entity in the country, was about to start. The flailing Washington Redskins were hosting the equally ineffective New York Giants on Thursday Night Football.
Talk about Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson or Greg Hardy amid the pregame revelry and pomp was limited, at best.
Coverage of those players’ acts over the past two weeks has been pervasive and negative. National news broadcasts worked Rice’s battering of his wife into the top of shows. Comedy Central’s “South Park” skewered the NFL. Football made the cover of “The New Yorker.”
The future of the sport was being discussed. “Time” magazine’s cover featured 16-year-old Chad Stover, who had died from a traumatic brain injury while playing in the fall of 2013, with a headline asking, “Is football worth it?”
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Yet, last Sunday afternoon, like Thursday night, it was big business as usual for the NFL. Stadiums were filled and televisions were powered on. A rematch of Super Bowl XLVIII between the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks brought in an average of 27.3 million viewers, making it the most-watched NFL game of the season.
Year-over-year ratings for Week 3 games were up overall. The early Sunday games on CBS were up 44 percent. The national game was up 16 percent. Games on Fox were down eight percent. The NFL on NBC — which is the Sunday night primetime game — was down nine percent.
Attendance was in tow. Capacity at Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field, where the Redskins lost, 37-34, last Sunday, is listed at 68,532. The Eagles announced 69,596 were in the stadium to watch the division rivals.
Even the prior week, the ratings received a boost as the Rice controversy percolated. CBS invested $275 million this offseason for the rights to seven Thursday night games, and got a prompt payoff. Its Sept. 11 debut featuring the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers saw a 108 percent ratings increase from last year’s opening Thursday night game on NFL Network between the New York Jets and Tom Brady’s New England Patriots.
“I’m not at all surprised,” Orin Starn, chair and professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University, who also teaches a sports and society course, said. “Football is the gigantic monster of American sports and the American sports entertainment complex. I think it would take a lot to get between Joe Football Fan and his television Sunday afternoon because it’s become so much a part of American life to be a football fan.”
For those working against domestic violence, the hope is an opportunity will be born from Rice’s public display of brutality.
According to the National Coalition of Domestic Violence, one in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. Despite portrayals to the contrary, the rate of reported domestic violence committed by NFL players is significantly lower than the public at large. The statistics website fivethirtyeight.com concluded the domestic violence rate among NFL players is 55.4 percent of the national average among men ages 25-29.
Video of Rice striking his then-fiancee and now-wife, Janay, brought the fervor around the incident to a new level. It was the most public face that could have been put on domestic violence: a public figure in the act of assaulting his partner.
“When this came to light, of course I was horrified,” Karma Cottman, the executive director of the D.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said. “Unfortunately the challenge for me in a domestic violence program is that this is not something we don’t see. The realities are that this is so unfortunate that this happened to Janay, and that we had to see this kind of brutality on TV, but it’s something that so many women in our nation live with on a regular basis.”
The NFL has said it botched its initial response to the incident. At first, Rice was suspended two games. When the second video surfaced, showing Rice throwing a left hook that knocked his wife unconscious, Rice was cut by the Ravens and suspended indefinitely by the league.
Both organizations were reactionary as opposed to pro-active. Ms. Cottman’s hope is that the incident brings change to how the league, commissioner Roger Goodell, and, in particular, teams discuss and handle domestic violence.
“They play such incredible leadership roles in the community,” she said. “Here’s an opportunity for someone people are looking up to to really take a stand on an issue that’s crippling our country, so why not do that?”
There is also an underlying opportunity for the NFL to push to the fore players who trumpet an anti-domestic violence message. Plus, a chance for the league to reach to lower levels of football for early education, according to Kelley Hampton, director of programs for Break the Cycle.
“Middle school, high school and college age young people,” Ms. Hampton said. “That’s where this change occurs, when you’re talking about preventing future incidents of violence.
“They have such a chance right now to leverage the fact that they are such a key piece of our culture to send a message and sustain that message. This is a really important time.”
Mr. Goodell said the league will form a committee to overhaul its personal conduct policy. In a letter to teams, he outlined a six-game, unpaid ban for players who violate the league’s domestic violence policy in the future. A second incident would result in a lifetime ban, with the possibility of appeal. He hopes to unveil the new policy at the Super Bowl next February.
Meanwhile, the NFL continues to challenge its saturation point among the public. Mr. Goodell has explored an 18-game schedule. Three regular-season games will be played in London this season. The NFL draft has become an extravaganza of hypotheticals spread over three days and aired in primetime. A record 45.7 million viewers watched the draft his past May.
Paradoxically, public shame has only brought the NFL more viewership. Demand remains extraordinary. The football machine rolls on, unfazed by a spate of negative news. The pregame party tents and locked-on widescreen televisions remain proof of that.