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NFL hiring more women doesn't make up for its tolerance of stars who abuse them

For many women, the NFL's attempts to attract women as fans has seemed patronizing.
Image: Lamar Miller of the Washington Football Team participates in a drill with assistant running backs coach Jennifer King.
Assistant Running Backs coach Jennifer King of the Washington Football Team participates in a drill with Lamar Miller #36 on Jun. 8, 2021, in Ashburn, Virginia.Scott Taetsch / Getty Images file

The biggest news to come out of the NFL owners’ meetings in Palm Beach, Florida, last week is a new diversity and inclusion effort that will require each of the league’s 32 teams to employ a "female or a member of an ethnic or racial minority" as an offensive assistant. Putting aside the fact that “female” is an adjective and not a noun, the National Football League’s announcement is surely meant to address historic inequities. That the NFL is insisting such hires happen on the offensive side of the ball is significant, because the pipeline to head coach more often than not runs through the offense.

The NFL is continuing its efforts to appeal to more women even as other decisions indicate the league doesn’t think much of them.

But the new rule also serves a larger commercial imperative. By making the hiring of women one of two options teams must choose, the NFL is continuing its longstanding effort to appeal to more women — even as other decisions made by the league and its teams indicate the league doesn’t think much of them.

The Cleveland Browns just gave the most guaranteed money in NFL history to quarterback Deshaun Watson who has, at minimum, 22 female accusers in the massage therapy industry with claims of sexual misconduct against him. The recently announced highest paid wide receiver in NFL history, Tyreek Hill, was previously accused of choking his pregnant girlfriend and punching her in the stomach. (Watson has maintained his innocence, and two grand juries have declined to bring charges against him. Hill was sentenced to three years probation after a guilty plea.) These are only two of many examples of the NFL’s disregard for women, and the fact that these players are not just given second and third chances but also rewarded with record-breaking contracts, shows how systemic the misogyny in the NFL is.

Unlike soccer, basketball or even baseball, American football is not a global sport, and love for the NFL, the most popular sports league in the United States, doesn’t extend much beyond the U.S. and its colonial territories. That means the NFL has always needed to look inside the country for more fans and, over the last decade, it has assiduously — maybe even desperately — looked to build its audience among women.

For the many female football fans in my circles, the league’s efforts — which previously included festooning its players in pink for October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month and selling pink versions of NFL jerseys — have seemed more than a little patronizing. There are the specific outreach programs and clinics marketed toward “moms” to both build the fan base and also try to ease concerns that if their children play football they will be forever hampered by brain injuries. More recent are the efforts to get more women hired as assistant coaches or executives. The NFL’s messaging has had the subtlety of a blowtorch: “Women, we want your dollars too!” Ham-handed as it may feel, it is also, according to Commissioner Roger Goodell, a wild success. He claims that “47 percent” of NFL fans are women. Tim Ellis, NFL’s chief marketing officer, told CNBC with glee in an interview that “38 percent” of these women fans describe themselves as “avid.” Super Bowl ads have reflected this as well, with more female protagonists and fewer women used "as eye candy in order to sell beer.”

Goodell, who has made increasing the number of female fans an imperative, must be feeling on top of the world about the data in front of him.

Since the 2014 viral video of Ray Rice knocking unconscious his then fiancée Jenay Palmer, the NFL has pretended to care about violence against women.

Yet there is a major fly in the ointment: The folks at NFL headquarters on New York’s Park Avenue and the various franchise owners in the league — the people who actually hire Roger Goodell and run the NFL — are not always reading from the same script. The systemic nature of the misogyny mentioned above isn’t limited to which athletes are given big contracts.

The Washington Football Team (now called the Washington Commanders) is embroiled in investigations into its history of sexual harassment and assault throughout its ranks, and the victimization of the team’s cheerleading squad with stories so sordid one wonders why the entire organization doesn’t crumple like a ball of trash and blow away in shame. The accusations of harassment implicate team executives as well as team boosters, and even reach the franchise owner, Daniel Snyder. In February, after six former employees of the Washington team told Congress that Snyder had sexually harassed subordinates and had "soft porn" videos made of the team's cheerleaders, the team released a statement from the owner denying what was said at that hearing.

“I have acknowledged and apologized multiple times in the past for the misconduct which took place at the Team and the harm suffered by some of our valued employees," he said. "I apologize again today for this conduct, and fully support the people who have been victimized and have come forward to tell their stories."

Image: Assistant Running Backs Coach Jennifer King looks holding a football.
Assistant Running Backs Coach Jennifer King looks on before the game against the Philadelphia Eagles at FedExField on Jan. 02, 2022 in Landover, Maryland.G Fiume / Getty Images file

But Snyder defended himself. "While past conduct at the Team was unacceptable, the allegations leveled against me personally in today’s roundtable — many of which are well over 13 years old — are outright lies. I unequivocally deny having participated in any such conduct, at any time and with respect to any person."

Imagine being a woman — or a man with half an ounce of morality — and having to work in the Cleveland Browns offices or for Washington's team, showing up to work every day and knowing that your bosses quite simply do not care what you think about their true priorities.

Since the 2014 viral video of then Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking unconscious his then-fiancee Jenay Palmer, the NFL has pretended to care about violence against women. This new spate of contracts and the scandal in Washington tell a disturbingly different story. The question is whether the contradictions cause that precious 47 percent market share to crater. If it does, expect the franchise owners to begin to care and become born-again supporters of gender equality and opponents of violence against women.