This could be a historic week for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
The father of two daughters who some commentators describe as “the most powerful man in sports,” Goodell announced the league’s new, tougher six-game suspension policy for an initial domestic violence offense and a possible lifetime ban for repeat offenses. The stricter rules came after an initial fumble: Goodell had given a trivial two-game suspension to Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for allegedly beating his then-fiancée and dragging her unconscious through the lobby of an Atlantic City casino.
“I didn’t get it right. We have to do better and we will,” he wrote in a rare letter of contrition sent to all 32 NFL teams. Goodell’s domestic violence policy has been widely applauded, though questions remain about how quickly and fully it will be enforced. The new rule may receive an early first test with San Francisco 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald, arrested on domestic violence charges last Saturday for allegedly assaulting his pregnant fiancée at a birthday party at his home.
There’s no question that Goodell’s harsher policy is a victory for women and the right move by the NFL, even if it is long overdue.
Since January 2000, 77 players have been involved in 85 domestic violence incidents, according to USA Today’s NFL arrests database. Domestic violence accounts for 48 percent of violent crime arrests among NFL players. This percentage is shocking on its own, but is even more staggering when compared to the rest of the general public – domestic violence arrests make up an estimated 21 percent of violent crime arrests nationally, according to a study by FiveThirtyEight. A recent Slate investigation found that 21 of the league’s 32 teams had at least one player who had been accused of or investigated or arrested on charges of domestic abuse or sexual assault.
Goodell may be on the verge of permanently shifting the NFL’s culture. Can Goodell do for the NFL what Pope Francis has done for the Catholic Church: reboot an institution stuck in the past with its bad habits and humiliating secrets?
Like the church, the NFL is one of the planet’s most successful and powerful enterprises, with over 200 million worshiping fans and $10 billion per year in revenue. Over 112 million viewers watched the 2014 Super Bowl – the largest TV audience ever recorded – with advertisers paying $4 million for 30 seconds of time.
Yet, while Goodell is arguably using the NFL’s power to serve a higher good – to punish violent players, protect women, defend the shield – we should not kid ourselves about why he acted.
Goodell is smart, shrewd and strategic. He knows the NFL, having risen through its ranks from intern to successor of legends Paul Tagliabue and Pete Rozelle. He gets that the days are long gone when women’s only role in football was to shake their tantalizing cheerleading uniforms from the sidelines. In the last decade, women have become a critical part of the NFL’s business plan.
Consider this: According to our work in “The Shriver Report,” women now control more than $20 trillion in global consumer spending. That means women have an economic impact 50 percent larger than that of the United States, and more than twice the size of China and India’s economies combined. Women make as much as 70 percent of today’s consumer decisions as the primary shoppers for their homes and families, and control about half of the private wealth in the U.S.
And what are women buying? Well, a lot of them are supporting the NFL by spending money on tickets, clothing and gifts.
It may come as a surprise that women represent approximately 45 percent of the NFL fan base – about 80 million women. Fifty-five percent of American women watched at least one regular-season NFL game last season, and almost as many women (46 percent) as men (54 percent) tuned in to watch the 2013 Super Bowl. Those women were not just delivering the Doritos and Budweisers to the guys in the family room – they are real fans spending real money. Women also have a stake in the billion-dollar business of fantasy football, accounting for 20 percent of all participants, according to Advertising Age.
To attract this expanding female consumer base, the NFL has stepped up its women’s outreach initiatives. There’s the NFL’s very successful, fast-growing multiplatform campaign to sell women’s apparel products. The NFL’s partnership with the American Cancer Society to support Breast Cancer Awareness is now in its fifth year, and the NFL’s Women’s Resource Initiative focuses on engaging players’ mothers, wives and girlfriends in areas of career, health and safety, wellness and life. There are internal studies and focus groups on how to make game days better for women, and there are increased attempts to reach moms at the youth level about the health and safety risks associated with tackle football.
Sure, the NFL cares about women, but can it really afford not to? Women are becoming as important to the NFL’s business as men are to its game. So when women spoke up, Goodell and his boys listened. Groups such as Futures Without Violence, UltraViolet, Sanctuary for Families, as well as male elected officials and players, expressed outrage over Rice’s punishment and condemned the penalty as too lenient. The last thing the NFL wants is for women to feel insulted and put their purses away.
Whatever the motives – and capitalistic motivations are as American as the sport itself – it’s good for women. It marks the starting point of a female power play in professional male sports. For women, it’s a validation of their increasing economic power. Women represent the fastest-growing, most dynamic economic force in the world today – powerful enough to change the culture and values of the uber-masculine, uber-wealthy NFL.