It's Not Just a Problem in the NFL

Years ago I attended a church picnic with my wife and kids.  It wasn't our home church, but a church I had occasionally preached at through the years and one we all enjoyed visiting.  It was the last place I expected to have to confront a derogatory and abusive comment about women. I remember standing with a group of men enjoying myself in the beautiful park where the picnic was being held.  One of the men in the group had his golden retriever with him and the dog was running around in circles, chasing its tail.  The owner remarked, “What can I say, she's such an idiot!”  One of the other men laughed, and added, “She's not an idiot, she's just having fun.”  I will never forget the dog owner's, response, “She IS an idiot--she doesn't have a brain in her head.  But what do you expect, after all, she's a female?”

I was so stunned and angry that I almost dropped the cold drink that was in my hand.  I looked the dog owner, who I knew was married and had two young daughters, in the eye and I said with a fair amount of intensity, “I am extremely offended by what you have just said. I can't let that kind of comment pass without telling you that I find what you said to be disrespectful and abusive toward women.”  I had just met this man a minute earlier and so I had no idea how he would respond.  “Lighten up buddy,” he replied, “it was just a joke.  You know, just a joke amongst us guys, no harm intended.”  I concluded our conversation with my strongly held opinion, “Disrespectful, abusive comments about women are not funny in any way, shape, or form.”

Domestic violence is in the news with the recent headlines coming from the National Football League.  We should not be surprised that the NFL has a problem with domestic violence.  Why?  Because the NFL is simply a reflection of our larger American culture, a culture where all types of domestic violence continue to occur at an alarming rate.  One in every four women in America will experience domestic violence in her lifetime.  1.3 million American women experience physical assault by an intimate partner each year. Thousands of children are abused each day.  Most of these domestic violence incidents are never reported to the police.

Perhaps the current NFL crisis regarding domestic violence can help raise our awareness of the larger problem that domestic violence permeates every aspect of our society. We know domestic violence happens in every part of our society, regardless of economic status, education, race, religion, or age.

Domestic violence against women and children is not limited only to physical assault.  Verbal abuse and intimidation also constitutes domestic violence.  Most people who physically abuse others begin the cycle of abuse with verbal and emotional intimidation; angry outbursts, name-calling, swearing, and such.  Even when verbal abuse and intimidation does not escalate to physical violence, it is still abuse.  This is why I reacted so strongly to the dog owner at the picnic.  I experienced his comment as being on a continuum of abuse.  I felt I had to speak up because I needed to confront the kind of mindsets and attitudes about women that can give rise to domestic violence, whether physical or verbal.  I would have reacted the same say if he had spoken in an abusive manner about a child, as mean-spirited language sets the stage for other types of disrespectful and abusive behaviors.

“Use your words, not your fists” is helpful advice that many parents have given to their young children at some point in their upbringing.  As children get older, it becomes important to teach them also that there are right and wrong ways to use words.  We adults are wise to remember as well that speaking words that are derogatory, abusive, or intimidating is never appropriate, and can be as hurtful as using one's fists.

We may be quick to judge what is currently happening in the NFL.  It would be so easy to adopt a self-righteous attitude toward the culture of the NFL and how it has long denied or minimized the issue of domestic violence perpetrated by its players.  My hope, though, is that we can use this current crisis as an opportunity to reflect on ways in which we, too, could be part of a pattern of denying and minimizing the issue of domestic violence in our communities. I hope we can use this opportunity to look at our own homes and at our own relationships, taking an honest look at how we speak to and about others, and how we treat one another.   Might our words or actions be hurtful to others and to our relationship with them? How could we change that? Let's take this opportunity for honest self-reflection and take action if need be.

Let's work together to use our words to speak up, and to speak out, against domestic violence in all forms.

For more information on this important issue visit the website for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.