The NFL does a lot of official scolding on domestic violence, but that didn’t prevent Greg Hardy from going all guns-and-strippers and mouthing more misogyny, or Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones from winking at him, while paying him $11 million. Actually, Terry Bradshaw did something on a Fox pregame show Sunday that was more effective than any edict from an NFL “vice president of social responsibility.” He embarrassed them.
Bradshaw gets what so many around the league don’t: that the NFL doesn’t have a woman problem, it has a man problem, and it’s going to take famous men shunning other men to change it
An entire military division of well-credentialed female “advisers” won’t get anywhere with the NFL until the men who are the real makers of manners in the league address a collective view of women that borders on a psychological disorder. If the NFL really wants to cure itself, for instance, it could start by forbidding teams to auction off cheerleaders in “Man Shows.” That’s why what Bradshaw did on “Fox NFL Sunday” was so important: In a searing rant, the Hall of Famer tore into Hardy for his apparent lack of remorse for assaulting a woman, and also laid into owner Jones as an “enabler.” For once, a prominent male sports figure busted another prominent male sports figure for sexual creepiness.
“Most athletes, we’re the good ol’ boys, part of the good-ol’-boy fraternity, and we take care of our brothers and we cover up the bad habit, and the bad play,” Bradshaw said in a phone interview, when asked what made him take the subject on. “We want them to be our friend, and we want the owner and the coach to like us, and therefore we’re not doing our job.”
Bradshaw’s fellow commentators sat in awkward silence as he furiously protested Hardy’s return to the field after a four-game suspension for strangling his girlfriend and threatening to kill her on a bed full of weapons. Bradshaw called Hardy out as a “fool” for his unrepentant and bizarre remarks about coming out with “guns blazing,” and wanting to get a look Tom Brady’s wife, Gisele Bundchen, and her sister too when he played the New England Patriots. But the faces of his colleagues really froze when Bradshaw turned on Jones and did a devastating imitation of the Cowboys owner excusing Hardy in a cornpone accent, because he’s so desperate for a pass rusher. It was an imitation he reprised on the phone.
“‘That’s my boy; he can sack a quarterback,’” Bradshaw jeered. “‘He didn’t mean to do it, and he won’t do it again. Here’s $20 million, bless your heart.’”
In criticizing Jones, Bradshaw is taking a calculated risk. Most broadcasters are unwilling to stake strong positions against league owners because of the matrix of relationships. Jones sits on the NFL’s broadcasting committee, which wields power with the networks. CBS executive Les Moonves sat in the owner’s box with Jones during the Cowboys-Patriots game, so it was perhaps no wonder that CBS color commentator Phil Simms offered up a weak, “There’s a lot to say about Greg Hardy” and restricted his remarks to “the difference physically” Hardy made on the field.
“I’m not one of their favorites; I’m not one of their boys,” Bradshaw said. “I’m not afraid of being fired, and I’m gonna speak my mind.”
Before the show, Bradshaw discussed what he wanted to say with his wife, Tammy.
“I gotta say this,” he told her. She said, “Say it. Say it. Somebody has got to say it.”
Bradshaw then warned his Fox producer Bill Richards that he intended to make a strong statement, and reviewed it with him, although it wasn’t in written form. Richards asked only that he temper his remarks by removing one element, which Bradshaw agreed was over the top.
“When I get so passionate, I get scared to death — and so does Fox — that I’ll miss my point,” he said.
Bradshaw was less worried by what the NFL or his producers would think than by what domestic violence experts might say.
As it happens, they were delighted with Bradshaw’s decision to weigh in. A crucial missing element from anti-domestic violence programs is the influential male voice, according to Nancy Lemon, legal director of the Family Violence Project and author of the standard textbook on the subject.
“That’s a huge part of what we need, actually,” Lemon said. “We can’t end domestic violence without a lot of prominent men talking about how unacceptable it is.”
The NFL is unique in its influence — and it is also unique in the extent to which it celebrates male physical subordination of others while perpetuating cartoonish depictions of sexuality. Sometimes the league’s messaging is downright schizophrenic: It can mount excellent public service announcements preaching sobriety and respect for women, while at the same time teams pay cheerleaders less than a working wage, submit them to “jiggle” tests, and make them parade in bikinis in front of drunken corporate customers.
The NFL will have moved into the 21st century when there are more Terry Bradshaws. That’s when the league will have outlived the old false belief that a certain amount of spillover violence is acceptable in football, that if you want men to play hard, you have to hatch them in an incubated culture of uncontrolled excess with women as trophies.
Even the most conscious athletes can fall into the trap of protecting their brother-teammates with silence, Canadian activist Tracy Porteous said. That’s why she enlisted star players of the B.C. Lions in a campaign to convince young athletes that keeping quiet is not an act of neutrality; it’s complicity.
“These guys can have the most credible conversations about masculinity,” she said.
The experts say there’s no single cure for the complex ill of domestic violence, that deterrence, stiff sentencing, or rehabilitation alone can’t wholly solve it. But they know one thing works: men talking to other men. Lemon lauds the results of a mentoring program called “Coaching Boys Into Men,” the motto of which is, “Who we are as men will be not defined by the strength in our arms and legs.”
“The program works because it’s men saying it,” Lemon said.
Not only was it important for a man to say what Bradshaw said; it was important for a man of his stature to say it, a four-time Super Bowl winner, someone who can legitimately explain that real strength is the self-control to regulate emotions to meet a situation, and to stand relatively alone in your attitudes and beliefs, apart from your peers.
“I felt very comfortable saying what I did, and women need to know there are people like me,” Bradshaw said. “They need a voice.” A male one.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.