Dear Mr. Goodell:
My name is Marcia Mount Shoop. I am a theologian, author, Presbyterian minister, mother, and coach’s wife. I am also a rape and abuse survivor. I spent the first twelve years of my marriage as an NFL wife while my husband coached for four different teams. We are thankful for our time in the NFL even as there are lots of things I do not miss. One of those things that I don’t miss is something I still deal with: sexism. The difference is one of magnitude; in the NFL it’s all wrapped up in a glittery package, and no one really thinks it is a problem.
That’s why I am writing you today, because lots of the things the NFL has wrapped up in glittery packages are problems—big problems. And the thing about problems that we try to deny is that they do not go away. They just get more and more powerful, distorting, and dangerous. And that’s one of the reasons you must be having some long days lately.
I am a feminist and an advocate for women, especially women who are survivors of sexual abuse and assault. You would probably assume that I would join in with the group of people calling for you to be replaced. Actually, I think you should keep your job. And I think it is important that you do because I am an advocate for women. You are holding a mirror up to the country about its own failures around domestic and sexual violence. From our justice systems, to our churches, to university campuses, to community reactions, to every institution in between, “getting it right” when it comes to domestic and sexual violence is an uncommon occurrence.
I also disagree with what lots of leaders from women’s groups are saying right now. Like Terry O’Neill, President of NOW, who says “the NFL has lost its way.”
On the contrary, I don’t think the NFL has lost its way. What Ray Rice showed us is the NFL’s way. And when those ways are laid bare for the whole world to see, people are horrified and they want someone to pay. As someone who had intimate proximity to the NFL for twelve years, I see Rice’s case (and others like it) flowing quite effortlessly from the culture that defines the NFL. And, I argue in my new book on big-time sports, that culture holds a mirror up to American culture and reflects back some of our most tenacious distortions.
Violence against women flows out of the gender caricatures that the NFL feeds on every day—caricatures of both masculinity and femininity. The NFL is a male-dominated enclave, and any power held by women is sparse and insignificant. We were with the Bears and deeply respect Virginia McCaskey. And we were with the Raiders while Amy Trask served as team president. These women learned to operate and accommodate; they learned to conform and to sometimes transgress in very constrained spaces. Mrs. McCaskey, for instance, has never allowed the Bears to have cheerleaders. She told me once, “That’s not a part of football.” And Amy Trask, fully credentialed for the job of team President, held that prominent position with the Raiders because Al Davis was a rebel. And even with Al Davis’ bold boundary crossing on many issues, team policy said that I could not step foot in my husband’s office while he coached for the Raiders because of my gender.
Despite the prominent spaces these two women occupied, the NFL does not allow for women’s power to substantively disrupt the culture that gives rise to violence against women.
Domestic violence is rooted in women being commodities, objects, and secondary to men. Domestic violence is about power, dominance, and cutting off communities and relationships. Domestic violence is about secrecy and making everything seem ok on the outside. Domestic violence is about cycles of abuse and reconciliation between an abuser and the abused. These are the habits we learn from the models of power that get rewarded many times in American culture, and they get rewarded almost all the time in an organization like the NFL.
The NFL is all about hierarchies and concentrations of power based on extreme stereotypes of masculinity. Women are marginal. Women are decorations. Women are even a problem, a distraction, something that diminishes the enterprise of professional football. These are subtle and tenacious habits. And the organization you lead is a vortex of force that helps keep these patterns firmly entrenched in the way the football business works.
I hope you keep your job, Mr. Goodell, because I think you are on a steep learning curve right now. And many institutions in the country need to accompany you in that learning. The jarring experience you are having these days might make you look twice at some of the things you have taken for granted or even seen as a virtue in your line of work.
I invite you to start as close to home as you can with the courage to question your own unconscious assent to sexism and abuses of power.
• How do you share your power with women in your every day life? Or with anyone who comes from a different life experience and perspective than you do?
• How many women have a voice at the table when you are making the most important decisions of your day? How do you make space for those voices to be truly heard?
• And how does the NFL prop up caricatures of what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman that exacerbate power imbalances? How do these same caricatures encourage the diminishment of women?
• What would it mean to explore these questions about gender and power not as a marketing strategy, but because you and your co-workers have a real commitment to getting this whole “we’re against domestic violence” thing right?
I am stating the obvious when I say that things are changing rapidly in the football world. There is pressure coming from all sorts of angles—it is starting to look and feel like an all out blitz. Concussions, bullying in the locker room, racism, and violence against women are creating disequilibrium for the NFL—an organization that has pretty much prided itself in being bullet proof. I hope you keep your job because I think you have the power to do some truly revolutionary work not just for the NFL, but also for American culture as a whole. America is watching. And many Americans who love football will follow your lead.
This is a moment of truth for this powerful institution of American culture. What a privilege that you have a chance to lead the way. You’ll be in my prayers.
The Rev. Marcia Mount Shoop, PhD