Will the NFL's domestic-violence blunders hurt Pink October?

The NFL shield has tackled numerous threats to its domination of broadcast sports over the past year. Among them was the 4,500 player-strong concussion lawsuit brought against the NFL in 2013, which analysts speculated could cost the league millions of dollars. This assessment started to come true over the past 12 months, as the league's decision to settle with plaintiffs and its agreement to never cap payments to future NFL concussion victims has amounted to an $870 million-plus slew of payouts so far.

Jack Brewer of the New York Giants in December, 2004
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Jack Brewer of the New York Giants in December, 2004

But the NFL's most pressing concern this year—the one making the biggest, worst headlines for the league—has been the overwhelming influx of reports and allegations of domestic violence and other abuse perpetrated by NFL players and staff. This blowup has overshadowed all other concerns now that the 2014 season is in full swing (including the remarkable revelation that 30 percent of players will suffer game-related neurological concerns during their lifetime, as documented by recent court assessments).

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I have written articles about player conduct as well as the thug treatment that many African American athletes face, but the recent events surrounding NFL superstars' domestic violence have shed light on an issue that's just as dire as classism, racism or punishment for possession of marijuana. As a proud former NFL player, I never imagined violence against women and children would become such a critical issue when we talk about NFL player policies.

Women make up roughly 40 percent of the total NFL fan base according to sources like ESPN, and most NFL fans look forward to October when our Sunday gladiators wear pink gloves, shoes and other accessories to raise awareness of breast cancer. The league is clearly interested in bolstering female viewership, with its $4.5 million donations to cancer research. But it made a major blunder here, and the million-dollar question has become how to motivate the NFL to deal with domestic abusers in the long run.

The NFL has substance abuse policies, enforceable team rules, strict attendance policies, media-conduct policies and a range of other rules covering minor issues, but the league can't truly claim to be concerned about its female fans when it's taken this long to talk about domestic violence rules that should be common sense.

If you are an executive at a major company and caught on tape abusing women, like former Radium One CEO Gurbaksh Chahal, you're out of a job. But the NFL has played things differently. A grand jury indicted Ray Rice in March for third-degree aggravated assault, and my first reaction to the incident was "How could they not cut him?" — even as Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti maintained that Rice had a "future with the team despite his arrest." (In Rice's defense, it was also wrong for the league to punish him twice, given that Commissioner Roger Goodell already gave him a two-game suspension. Even that demonstrates a lack of sensitivity toward issues of domestic violence.)

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The fact of the matter is, the NFL and Commissioner Goodell have never taken time to severely discipline athletes engaging in domestic violence. North Carolina convicted the Panthers' defensive end Greg Hardy of assault and communicating threats, but he played during week one and the Panthers only dropped him from the active roster after the Rice scandal broke (though he still earns his $13.1 million salary each week). The Chicago Bears' Brandon Marshall had repeated arrests for domestic violence, which prompted a one-game suspension and fines. Leroy Hill of the Seattle Seahawks had equal suspensions and penalties from drug use as he did for his fourth-degree domestic assault arrest.

The sad reality is that the NFL just hasn't taken violence in its ranks seriously. The league more consistently disciplines players for substance abuse (year-long suspensions for marijuana use!) than it does for harm they inflict on others. A record like this means that the NFL cares more about petty misdemeanors than serious crimes like domestic violence.

Hopefully the recent sponsor terminations, like Nike's desertion of Ray Rice, Radisson Hotels' dropping of the Vikings and Target's decision to pull those players' merchandise, will be a wake-up call. The NFL earned more than $9 billion last year, $1 billion of which came from sponsor revenue. True, the NFL suffers a moral problem as it ignores domestic abusers, but it responds better to threats to its cash flow than it does public outcry alone. As with any other business, we know that this major institution will only dedicate itself to a worthy cause if it can save itself at the same time.

This issue really has made me question the shield that I so proudly wore since I was fortunate enough to put on an NFL helmet in 2002. The league bills itself as a voice for women, raising breast-cancer awareness during its Pink campaigns each fall, but these efforts amount to little more than marketing tricks as the NFL reacts time and time again to violence against women with ignorance and apathy. American women are far more likely to suffer domestic abuse than breast cancer, but the NFL missteps go on. So where are the league's real priorities—and will it continue to receive growing support this October?

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One thing's for certain: Roger Goodell deserves the heat he's gotten. He's given no signs that he'll resign, even though it's taken this long for the NFL to make real change and he's at the heart of the problem. Until he and the league shape up, I've got to agree with what my good friend Sidney Rice tweeted after watching yet another embarrassing NFL press conference on domestic violence: "Boo this man."

Commentary by Jack Brewer, a former NFL safety who played for the Vikings, Giants, Eagles and Cardinals. He is also the founder and CEO of the Brewer Group. He has a master's degree in sports management from the University of Minnesota. He serves as an ambassador for peace and sport for the United States Federation of Middle East Peace at the United Nations. Follow him on Twitter @JackBrewerBSI.