Expert: NFL could change society

Backlash about Ray Rice's suspension caused the NFL to rethink its policy on domestic abuse. Mel Evans/AP Images

In getting a full grasp on how they should address the issue of domestic violence, the NFL consulted on several occasions with various outside groups and experts. Among them were Rita Smith (national expert on violence against women and formerly led National Coalition Against Domestic Violence), Peter Harvey and Esta Soler (Futures without Violence), Tony Porter (A Call to Men), Joe Ehrmann (Coach for America and a former NFL player). Another was Kim A. Gandy of the National Network to End Domestic Violence. She spoke with Scoop Jackson about that experience and why she feels that the step the NFL is taking on domestic abuse maybe one of the most groundbreaking in recent sports history.

Scoop Jackson: I'm not at all trying to be cynical, but since you were one of the people the commissioner spoke to directly in constructing the NFL's new policy on domestic violence, do you feel the league is really sincere in trying to change the culture of domestic violence in the NFL by implementing this or is there any part of you that feels that this could just be a move to protect themselves from a PR stand point?

Kim A. Gandy: Well, I think with any organization that's been subject to a lot of public criticism dealing with a specific issue there is going to be an initial response of self-protection. And like any organization I think that was [the NFL's] first reaction. But I don't think it's where they are now. I've had some really long conversations with the commissioner, very long meeting[s] -- almost 40 hours -- with other members of their leadership team, with two executive vice presidents and other vice presidents and we talked at real length about the impact of domestic violence on the world; on all of our families; on society; what it means and about the ins and outs of what makes up domestic abuse. It's not just hitting, there's a lot more to it. So there's a whole educational process. But I believe [the NFL] is very genuine in wanting to make a difference in this. I don't know if it started out that way, but I believe that it has ended up that not only did they want to deal with the public image problem that they had but they are now convinced that they have the ability to impact a societal change.

Scoop: Seriously?

Gandy: Yes. It is something they heard from some experts, they heard that from domestic violence advocates: "You have a role to play in changing the culture if you are willing to take leadership on this." And the words from the commissioner were: "We're willing to take leadership on this."

Scoop: One of the things I'm kind of advocating on their side is that in order to do that as a league/organization in taking a leadership role, especially being the NFL, they need to use their power to remove the "stigma" of this being a "woman's issue." I just think at some point in order to get the message through by the NFL they need to not associate this with being a "woman's-only" issue. Does that make sense to you at all?

Gandy: I think they understand very well that it's a family issue. One of the things that the commissioner said to me was that one of their senior leadership was what we would call a "child victim," someone who witnessed his mother being badly abused and it had a tremendous impact on him. Though I think that personal experience within the ranks of the NFL leadership has also helped them understand that this affects everybody and it affects the direct victims, that's obvious, but what's less obvious is the impact it has on children and on the families and on the extended families. And how the reverberations are generational.

Scoop: They run deep.

Gandy: Sometimes you know something but you don't know that you know it. I think that in exploring this, I think that the NFL has come to a realization on their own that this impact is more than just violence against women, per se.

Scoop: Here's my concern: It just feels to me that there's always purposely a female component attached to domestic violence stories and issues. From an NFL standpoint, an ESPN standpoint, a news organization standpoint, an advertising/marketing standpoint, an awareness standpoint. Hell, it was hard for me to get a man to comment on it for this story. Most of the stories you read or see on this [topic] are always done by women, like that becomes their assignment. Any promotional or public awareness ad dealing with this always seems to have a female attached to it. In doing that I don't feel that it helps the situation or helps the message by making it feel like the problem is gender-specific when it is really bigger than that.

Gandy: It is bigger than that. As sad as it is to say, when you make something a woman's issue you often don't put the attention on the very people that need to be paying attention.

Scoop: Exactly! That's kind of where I'm at on this. That's where my biggest fear about this is.

Gandy: Yeah, yeah, that's part of it but also one of the reasons that those of us that work in this area, who work with victims and see the need for attitude changes in society about this, that's why we are so excited to see the NFL really seize this issue and move on it. Because we think that has the potential to move this on to a broader stage so that people don't just see it as, "Oh, that's just one of those women's issues." So that it is something that men should care about.

Scoop: What is your greatest hope in this situation?

Gandy: My hope is that the NFL seizes this issue and uses it to begin changing the culture around masculinity and violence. And that their lead is followed by other sports leagues and that when my grandkids-to-be -- because I don't have any grandkids yet -- will live in a very different world when it comes to intimate partner relationships and that it will be very different 20 years from now. But that's only going to happen if this is a sustained campaign. You can't change long, ingrained, cultural feelings of entitlement in a year or two. The NFL's commitment to this has got to be long term.

Scoop: Do you feel that the NFL has a responsibility to do that?

Gandy: I'm the wrong person to ask. Because I would tell you if you filled in the blank with the name of any company or organization, I'd say yes, because everybody has a responsibility to do this. But I wouldn't say that I think the NFL has some kind of special responsibility beyond other people except that, um, they have such potential to make an impact. Far more than any -- just pick a corporation, there's just no comparison. Professional sports has so much impact on people in this country. Especially young people who look so often to celebrities and athletes as their role models. There's a dramatic influence that athletes and sports leagues and teams can have on the attitudes that are developing in young men. I think it can be -- and I hate to use the term "game changer" [laughs], but it's the only word that comes to mind. It could make huge difference. As someone who has done this work for decades, something like this doesn't come along very often. It's something that makes you say, "This, this can really do something. This can really make a difference." Those times don't come very often in this work, and I think this is one of those times.