Arizona Daily Star – Guest Opinion article

I’m a huge fan of pro football. It’s pretty easy to find me on Sundays and Monday nights. But the NFL has a serious problem.

The problem isn’t just that numerous players continue to commit egregious acts of violence against women, or that the league continues to give these players a pass, especially if they are fan favorites (i.e., generate revenue). The problem is that the culture within the league hasn’t changed much despite the recent public gestures from the NFL showing just how much they care about violence against women.

Case in point is the Kansas City Chief’s Kareem Hunt who had several violent incidents earlier this year, including kicking a woman last February. However, Hunt only faced consequences in late November when a video surfaced of his attack on the woman (á la Ray Rice). Or the Chief’s Tyreek Hill, one of the NFL’s brightest stars, who pled guilty to strangling his pregnant girlfriend and punching her in the face and stomach when he was in college. He was dismissed from his college team, but was drafted into the NFL nonetheless. And then there’s Ruben Foster. Three days after being cut from the 49ers for slapping his girlfriend, the Washington Redskins signed him to their roster.

I’m not arguing that anyone who has committed an act of violence should never be allowed to be employed as a result of their actions, but I do believe in accountability. I also know that women’s individual and collective safety is further compromised every time the violence perpetrated against them is minimized, denied, said to be their fault, or allowed to happen without consequences.

Enter Jason Witten. The long-time superstar with the Dallas Cowboys is now an ESPN commentator for Monday Night Football. When asked during last week’s MNF broadcast about the controversy surrounding the Redskins’ signing of Foster, Witten (who grew up in a home with domestic violence) stated that the Redskins “used horrendous judgment,” and commented on the need for players to understand that “there is no tolerance for putting your hands on a woman.  Period.” Booger McFarland, a sideline analyst and two-time Super Bowl champion agreed. “[Domestic violence] is a societal problem, and if the NFL really wants to do away with it in their league, they’re going to have to figure out a way to make the punishment a lot tougher.”

It was refreshing to see this leadership from men in calling for higher standards within the NFL’s culture – within our country’s culture – related to violence against women. However, Witten was immediately criticized and called a hypocrite based on his public statement several years ago in support of a former teammate accused of domestic violence. That’s fair criticism, but as we look for Witten to be held accountable for his inconsistent stance, where is the cry for Hunt, Hill and Foster’s accountability? Instead of supporting Witten’s new-found ability to speak up and do what’s right, he was criticized for not having found his voice earlier. I wonder where those critics were with their own voices around this issue.

We need many more people (more men) like Witten and McFarland, who are willing to say that violence against women is not okay and there must be accountability. As McFarland said – this is a societal issue, which means this isn’t limited to the NFL.  This is about Pima County as well. It’s time that more of us follow Jason Witten’s lead and find our voice.

Ed Mercurio-Sakwa

CEO, Emerge Center Against Domestic Abuse