On September 27, Roger Goodell stepped from his limousine to spend three hours visiting the offices of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. The stories he heard from victims of emotional and physical abuse moved him to tears.
The NFL, safely ensconced in its Park Avenue headquarters, has a history of limousine philanthropy. Heartwarming commercials highlighting the donations the NFL makes to United Ways so they can give to local social-service groups. The breast-cancer-awareness campaign every October symbolized by players wearing neon pink cleats and sweatbands has become a signature effort of the NFL.
These are painless and impersonal ways to do good for an organization that spent years dismissing the debilitating mental and physical affects of playing football and ignoring the almost routine violence against women perpetrated by players. It is easy to know that domestic violence exists—to even see the toll of its aftermath as a woman is dragged unconscious from an elevator—while still staying at a safe distance from its awful reality.
The NFL faces an existential crisis about its outsize role in American culture and whether it is going to be boxing circa 1975 or a new kind of organization that operates on a set of core principles that begins with taking care of its own players.
The NFL, its executives, team owners, and personnel should spend the next year answering the phones at domestic-violence hotlines, visiting former players suffering from dementia and poverty. They should sit with a single mom the night before her chemotherapy appointment and help her figure out how her kids are going to get to and from school the next day and who is going to feed them dinner. They should spend the next year getting out from the behind the fortress walls of the NFL and truly experience what it means to be poor and sick, the victim of an abusive partner with very few choices, the victim of a national system of demonizing the working poor by offering no paid sick leave.
After a year of experiencing life of people with few choices and resources, the NFL will have ideas of ways to truly help people and communities that they, and their phalanx of consultants, could never imagine today.
The NFL’s charge right now isn’t to do something different, but to be something different.