Opinion writer

35 percent of the people who watch National Football League games on television every week are women, a figure that on the surface might seem to explain how the NFL has fallen all over itself in rushing to respond to a string of high-profile domestic violence incidents involving professional football players and the outcry against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s seemingly flip handling of one of the cases. As Amanda Hess points out in Slate, 35 percent of your viewers is both a sizable chunk of a fan base to lose, and if women turn against the game and the league, the NFL is also losing a significant opportunity to grow.


An Oakland Raiders fan holds a sign for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after the game against the Houston Texans at O.co Coliseum. The Texans defeated the Raiders 30-14. (Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

But for all the individual female fans who have been turned off the game, new data from the YouGov Brand Index suggests that women might actually be faster to forgive the NFL than their male counterparts.

The Brand Index is a week-daily survey of a pool of 4,300 respondents, and tries to get their answers to a core question: “If you’ve heard anything about the brand in the last two weeks, through advertising, news or word of mouth, was it positive or negative?” The company then combines those scores to produce a ranking of a brand’s positive or negative perception: a score of 100 means that all respondents heard only positive things about the brand, a score of -100 means they heard completely negative things, and a score of zero means that the positive and negative things respondents heard about the brand were balanced out.

This month, the NFL has experienced a dizzying dip: the league had a score of 36 on September 8. It was the highest the NFL has scored in 2014. But September 8 was also the same day that TMZ Sports published a full video of the altercation between Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice and his then-fianceé Janay Palmer in a casino elevator (the couple are now married) that resulted in Rice knocking Palmer unconscious.

On September 14, the NFL’s Brand Index score had plummeted all the way down to -37, a reflection of the intense coverage of Rice and Goodell’s decision-making process about how to hand out Rice’s initial suspension. That figure is 11 points lower than the NFL’s previous worse score in 2012, which was influenced “by the New Orleans Saints bounty crisis and new rules restricting purses and bags in stadiums.”

That figure has since bounced back up. But the rise in the NFL’s reputation appears to be driven by women, rather than by men. As of Tuesday, the score for women asked if they had heard negative things about the NFL was -9, up from a previous low of -30. The men’s score is currently -51, a striking difference in perception between the genders.

Now, this could simply be a reflection that men are consuming more sports news, and as a result, are hearing more about the details of the NFL’s handling of the Rice incident, as well as learning about violent incidents involving several other players on other teams, including running back Adrian Peterson’s arrest for allegedly beating his son with a tree branch.

I asked Drew Kerr, who handles communications for YouGov, what might explain the difference. The answer? Women seem to be more forgiving in general, and the NFL’s early moves to open an investigation into the league’s response to Rice and to appoint a board to oversee the creation of a new domestic violence policy might be helping.

“Looking through the data historically, women sometimes have a tendency to be the first ones to bounce back at big crises before men do,” Kerr wrote in an email. “In this case, we speculate that the punishment was given, lots was said, and women are showing signs of starting to move on and maybe even forgive a little.”

Using a different measurement, which asks survey respondents if they have positive or negative feelings about the NFL as a whole, women seem to feel more positive about the league than men two weeks into the new season. The lowest overall response from men was a score of -11, while women’s feelings only dipped to -5. By Wednesday, the NFL’s brand was back in overall positive score territory, pulling in a 5. Women are pulling that figure up from the negative zone: their responses give the NFL a positive score of 10, while men are split.

Whatever the reason for this gender gap, these numbers may let the NFL rest a little easier. Appoint some women to craft a new domestic violence policy, keep the women’s-cut jerseys coming, and it seems that women will forgive even a league that has shown little concern for women’s safety.