When Angela Nazario filed for an order of protection against Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald in 2008, you would have been hard-pressed to find more than a line or two about it in the mainstream press.
At the time, Fitzgerald was a star and an NFL favorite, leading his team to the 2009 Super Bowl.
But there was one outlet that did jump on the story. It was the same outlet responsible for the ever-growing fracas the league now finds itself embroiled in — thanks to its willingness to publish videos of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice delivering a knock-out punch to his then-fiancée Janay Palmer, and another of him dragging her out of an Atlantic City casino elevator facedown immediately after striking her.
That’s right: TMZ.
On New Year’s Eve 2008, TMZ published a story that said Fitzgerald had been ordered to stay away from Nazario. It detailed the allegations, gleaned from court documents, that she leveled against him — that after the two began quarreling, Fitzgerald challenged her to a play fight. Nazario said she swung at Fitzgerald, who then pushed her. He “grabbed me by my hair with both hands on the back of my head very very hard and tossed me across the room.” When Nazario tried to leave with their son, she said Fitzgerald “grabbed the back of my neck and slammed me down on the marble floor…. [I] was disoriented for awhile and could not get up, I remember he mumbled something about ‘that’s what happens when you try taking my son away from me.'” When she made it to her car, Nazario said she realized Fitzgerald had pulled out chunks of her hair.
Pretty grim stuff, and Nazario alleged it took place all while Fitzgerald held their infant son. But it barely made the pages of the Arizona Republic, the state’s paper of record, as Ray Stern of the Phoenix New Times observed. It was practically a footnote in a column by the Republic’s Dan Bickley, completely scrubbed of specifics of the allegations.
And as the national football-covering media descended on Tampa for Super Bowl XLIII, that’s what the incident became: a footnote. The big story — and seemingly the only story — the media cared about concerning Fitzgerald was that his sportswriter father would get to cover his son playing in the Super Bowl, and that he promised not to cheer from the press box.
Don’t take me wrong, I’m not saying Fitzgerald is a bad guy, we all make mistakes, although hopefully not ones this bad. But I do find it odd that the sports media chooses to ignore writing about a significant national problem — domestic violence — when one of the Super Bowl’s star players is openly accused of it.
Contrast that with the Republic’s coverage of the arrest of Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer:
The top two stories on the sports landing page are unmistakably about Dwyer and the charges against him.
A quick rundown: Dwyer is accused of hitting his wife, Kayla, two separate times in July. The first time, she called police, then told them she was arguing with Dwyer on the phone. She told them no one else was home, as Dwyer hid in the bathroom. The second time, Dwyer allegedly took Kayla’s phone and threw it from the second floor of their home to keep her from calling the police. She has since left Arizona with their son.
So what’s different this time around?
Well, for starters, TMZ has helped to make domestic violence in the NFL impossible to ignore, much to the chagrin of commissioner Roger Goodell and, if you ask Deadspin, the elite media “stooges” who cover him and the rest of the league.
“The Rice fiasco has been a clarifying moment for the top tier of NFL beat reporting, which today looks like nothing so much as a well-appointed kennel for obedient lapdogs,” wrote Deadspin’s Dave McKenna. “Because access is the coin of the realm in a media age that demands an ever-replenishing supply of what one NFL beat guy called ‘nuggets’ — Green Bay-Seattle will kick off the season! — the star reporters to one extent or another all belong to the league.”
Whatever existing gentlemen’s agreement to only cover off-the-field bad behavior in the most egregious of cases — everything else being a “distraction” from the only thing that really matters — is gone, swept out to sea like a too-loose bikini caught in a riptide of video evidence and national moral indignation.
There’s nowhere to hide anymore, thanks to TMZ’s operating philosophy, as explained by Anne Helen Petersen of BuzzFeed. In documenting TMZ’s rise in a story published in July, she said editor Harvey Levin “was driven to tirelessly pursue these scoops by a desire to dismantle the unspoken but elaborate system that exempted the high-powered and beautiful of Hollywood from the rules to which the rest of the world were held. Levin had spent nearly 30 years observing the system — cops, judges, prosecutors, juries — allow the beautiful, wealthy, and powerful to misbehave, sometimes with total impunity. TMZ was his opportunity to right those wrongs.”
It’s easy to see that same philosophy being applied to TMZ’s sports coverage.
The outcry against the NFL and Goodell after he suspended Rice for only two games was significant, but it was nothing after the public got hold of the notion that the commish was embroiled in a coverup. That’s arguably prompted swifter action in cases such as Dwyer’s and that of Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy. Hardy was moved to the exempt/commissioner’s permission list, effectively banning him from team activities while he awaits an appeal in his own domestic assault case.
But that’s not the only difference. The climate surrounding football has changed. There are more women covering it, and they’re speaking up, as Fox Sports’ Katie Nolan did, because they’re disgusted, too.
“It’s time for the conversation to change, or at least for those participating in the conversation,” Nolan said in a video for Fox Sports. “It’s time for women to have a seat at the big boy table, and not where their presence is a gimmick or a concept — just a person who happens to have breasts offering their opinion on the sports they love and the topics they know.
“Because, the truth is, the NFL will never respect women and their opinions as long as the media it answers to doesn’t. I’m ready when you are, Fox.”