Jane McManus and Adam Schefter, both ESPN writers, are reporting this afternoon that the National Football League is adopting a new policy on domestic violence and sexual assault by its players: a six-game suspension for a first offense, and a lifetime ban (with the possibility of appeal) for a second.


NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell looks on prior to the start of the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft at Radio City Music Hall on May 8, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

The NFL came under widespread criticism after Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was suspended for just two games after he attacked his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, in February, a far smaller penalty than the year-long suspension the league recently handed down to Cleveland Browns receiver Josh Gordon for his violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.

“My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families,” League Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a letter to team owners announcing the new policy. “I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn’t get it right.”

Being a female sports fan can be a difficult thing. There are little indignities, like the cheesy pink gear that suggests our enthusiasms are second to our wardrobe choices. There are bigger ones, like the ongoing employment of scantily-clad cheerleaders to act as inducement to presumptively straight male players and eye candy for presumptively straight, male crowds. And to add injury to irritant, these women are subject to wage theft and degrading employment conditions.

And beyond that, there is the challenge of the players themselves. It is one thing to think that bad men can make great art, or that bad men can throw beautiful spiral passes or lay down devastating hits. It is another to root for men who occasionally act in ways that suggest that they think women are garbage, or that the truest way for a woman to be a fan is to be sexually available. I hesitate a little every time I buy a new Patriots jersey, worried that the man whose name I emblazon across my back might end up acting in a way that casts shame on my enthusiasm for him. Most of the time, I pick out gear with nobody’s name on the back.

In this context, it is good to hear Goodell say he got it wrong. I am glad to hear him express the intention to improve sexual assault and domestic violence education as part of both rookie training and youth football programming, and to move to include these issues in the NFL’s portfolio of “public service work.” If the league selects strong partners for these efforts and meets high standards for education about sexual consent and domestic violence, it could be a very powerful thing for the NFL to throw its brand behind issues that have often been left for women and women’s organizations to advocate for on their own

I am also heartened to see that Goodell plans to improve counseling and outreach not just to NFL players, but to their spouses. Janay Palmer is now married to Ray Rice. For the NFL family to be a meaningful idea, her safety needs to be just as important to the league as Rice’s, even if she isn’t racking up yards for the Ravens.

But I am not sure why Goodell felt the need to clarify that these suspensions apply to cases of “assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault that involve physical force.” It would be an exceptional failure if NFL players were able to evade punishment because they were not sufficiently violent to qualify, or where a victim was incapacitated by drugs or alcohol such that she was unable to give affirmative consent.

Goodell’s stated ambitions, both in their particulars and in the more general pledge that the League will “use this opportunity to create a positive outcome by promoting policies of respect for women both within and outside of the workplace,” are good ones. But they are still ambitions, rather than realities. In the weeks and months to come, journalists, fans and partner organizations should hold the NFL to very high standards when it comes to implementing them.

And advocates should not shy away from pointing out that beating up or raping a woman is not the only way to assert her second-class status. It took until 2012 for a woman to referee an NFL game, and even then, she got the opportunity only in training camp. Female executives, including Miami Dolphins vice president of football administration Dawn Aponte and Megan McLaughlin, the football information manager for the Baltimore Ravens, remain rare. The grotesque and invasive treatment of cheerleaders has resulted in a number of lawsuits.

I am glad to see the beginning of a conversation that takes as central assumptions that the way men in the NFL treat the women with whom they have sex and intimate relationships matters. But that discussion is just part of what it would really mean for the league to respect and value women.

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.