The Real Scandal Behind the NFL Domestic Violence Controversy

The real scandal is not about football or domestic violence or big business. The real scandal is about what’s happening in our living rooms…

NFL Domestic violence

Photo Credit: Camil Tulcan via Compfight cc

Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice gave his wife a right hook before he gave her a wedding band.

He knocked her unconscious and then dragged her halfway out of the elevator they’d been riding. Just far enough to keep the elevator door ajar and the security camera recording. Just far enough so the NFL could witness the totality of the brutality. When they saw it, they suspended him for two games.

Until the video went public.

Then the team cancelled his contract and the league suspended him indefinitely. In the wake of the news, more allegations of domestic violence amongst NFL players are emerging.

But really, none of this is terribly scandalous. Is anyone surprised that a sport rooted in violence toward others cultivates violence at home? Is anyone surprised that a billion dollar business will hide bad press until it can’t hide it anymore? No, the real scandal is in the results of an NBC poll: while 60% of football viewers disapprove of the way the NFL has handled the scandal—and presumably even more disapprove of domestic violence—90% of people will not watch less football as a result.

The real scandal is not about football or domestic violence or big business.

The real scandal is about what’s happening in our living rooms and in our lives.

The real scandal is our tendency to ignore what we value and to live out something else.

The Road Away From Purpose and Peace

Purposelessness and peacelessness.

They are the plagues of our age. But you need not look further for their cause than the disconnect between our values and our actions. What are purpose and peace? Purpose is the sense of meaning that emerges when how we live is consistent with what we believe. Peace is the quiet sense of wholeness that happens when what we value merges with what we do.

Our highest values come from somewhere deep inside—a place some call the heart or the soul or the true self or our center or our core. However, our souls are often slaves to our egos—the part of us that wants progress and seeks pleasure and pursues perfection. So, what do we do when our soul’s purpose and peace are at odds with our ego’s pleasure and progress?

We believe one thing and we do something different.

And to tolerate the dissonance, we stop looking in the mirror.

Looking in the Mirror

I don’t watch much football anymore. Not a moral choice but a practical one—I don’t know when I’d find time to mow the lawn if I was running a fantasy team. So, it’s easy for me to look at the NFL and call out hypocrisy.

But it’s not so easy to look in the mirror.

It’s not so easy to admit how much I care about the planet and yet never think twice about the amount of fuel my travel decisions require. Some time ago, my wife quit using our Keurig coffee maker because of all of the plastic waste. I still use it.

It’s not so easy to look in the mirror.

It’s not so easy to admit how much I care about people and yet when I see “Made in China” on my clothing, I don’t read between the lines and remember “Made in China” really means “Made (in a Dangerous Factory Under Horrible Conditions by People Being Paid Almost Nothing and Being Treated Even Worse) in China.” I don’t think about the people who made my iPhone and the work conditions they endure and the health conditions they’ll develop as a result of working with the chemicals that make my phone beautiful.

I don’t think about the ugly behind the pretty things I like. Because I like my progress and my pleasure and my perfection and my pretty.

It’s not so easy to look in the mirror.

The Road Back

If we were fully aware of the gap between our values and our actions, we’d have a hard time looking in the mirror, and we’d have a hard time looking at a television screen on a Sunday afternoon. But there is so much more at stake here than our fantasy leagues and favorite teams and a little bit of guilt and personal reckoning.

Our purpose and our peace are at stake.

We have a choice, but are we willing to make it?

Are we willing to curb our appetite for progress and pleasure and perfection in order to live what we believe? Are we willing, finally, to make our egos answer to our souls? Are we willing to live according to our deepest values? Are we willing to seek the kind of progress that sometimes looks like going backward, becoming smaller, getting weaker, giving in to simplicity, and accepting loss? Are we willing to become purposeful in a way that has nothing to do with competition and everything to do with communion? Are we willing to become peaceful in a way that will transform everything for a planet desperately in need of wholeness?

Are we willing?

Am I willing?

Are you willing?

If you are, then go find a mirror. Choose to make one small, single, solitary change to bring your way of living into step with your way of believing. One little alteration that could alter the course of your life. One little difference that could make all the difference.

One single choice by every single person on the planet, and there wouldn’t be enough mirrors in the world to contain all the purpose and peace being reflected back at us.

You can leave a comment by clicking here.


The next Courtyard Conversation was originally scheduled for this Sunday. Unfortunately, due to a scheduling issue on my end, I’ve had to postpone it. The next Conversation will be on Sunday, October 12th, at 2pm CST. If you want to talk more about making our egos answer to our souls, join us then. You can find out more details and about how to join by clicking here.


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Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

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21 thoughts on “The Real Scandal Behind the NFL Domestic Violence Controversy

  1. Dear Dr. Flanagan,

    Thank you so much for this post. I am struggling with this issue right now between values and actions, what is said and how we behave. I want to make the choice to live and grow from a deeper part of myself and it means that I do not play the political game at work. So I am perceived as not getting ahead, not playing the game means I am no longer part of the executive inner circle with its perks and tacit power, though I know that the cost to my “self” is too much in an organization that does not see or value the best parts of my character.

    I believe in the great potential of organizations and that organizations must invest in the great potential of its people beyond just the alignment of needs.

    I find this road lonely, so your post is timely and personally relevant in encouraging me that I am behaving with my soul in mind even though my ego hurts.

    Many many thanks,

    • Tammy, your personal story is so encouraging. I think the ego hurts every time we live from our soul. As I read your comment about walking a lonely road, I had this image come to mind: many people, countless people, each walking there own lonely road in a forest, only to discover that if they each keep walking their lonely road all the roads converge in a clearing, and the lonely roads deposit them all into a community they can call home.

  2. One of the most courageous and difficult acts I can do is
    to stand still,
    look into my own eyes
    and see myself in a mirror.

    I regularly try to do this
    and it is never easy.

    And people say I am a strong person.
    But how strong am I if this small act takes so much guts?

    That is why I know your post
    is supremely on point and very truthful.

    Thank you.

    • I hope you see what these people in your life are seeing in you the next time you look into your mirror. I feel confident you wouldn’t hear it so often if it weren’t there.

  3. I like this post, I just wish at times it wasn’t picking a battle between the lesser of evils.

    Made in China could mean factories with terrible working conditions.
    NFL is showing large amounts of corruption in the money machine it has become.
    Shopping at Wal-Mart means giving money to a company that leaves a huge percent of the money at the top, that doesn’t filter down as it should.

    But if we can all take the time to try and incorporate one change to step away from that corruption every few months or years, we can start a trend towards change.

  4. Hi Kelly. Beautifully and simply put. What you’ve said encompasses the vast majority of our lives, from where we live, to who we marry, to how we treat our children, to what we do to Earth and on and on. My son and I have been talking about purpose and meaning and the overwhelming apathy that so many of his peers feel. I suggested he read Viktor Frankl. I’m going to send him your article. Thanks for your thoughtful perspective.

    • Thanks, CJ. Your son is a lucky guy to have a dad who’s digging into such difficult topics with him. I read Frankl my first semester in graduate school and it opened me up to life in a whole new way. I hope your son is similarly impacted.

  5. Kelly,

    Thanks!! After reading this I wrote this poem about peering in to the mirror.

    Peer into the mirror

    It’s not as clear as it appears

    Peer into the mirror

    Reflection or a deception

    Peer into the mirror

    Is it pure?

    Peer into the mirror

    What’s obscure?

    Peer into the mirror

    With all your sneers and fears

    Peer into the mirror

    Glass of gaze that’s a maze

    Peer into the mirror

    It’s so clear and near

    Peer into the mirror…

    • Dang, this is really good, Scott. Thank you for writing it and sharing it. The way you juxtapose clearness and confusion both in the content and the structure, it gives us permission to look in the mirror and see all our mess and still have faith that clarity is right there next to it. Thank you again.

  6. This touches deeply on true meaning behind the current trending phrase, “Mind the Gap”. Thank you for such honesty.

  7. What an excellent, timely post, Kelly! As I drifted along into easy, familiar frustration with the continued great ratings on NFL games — and the apologist diatribes I’ve endured the past several weeks about domestic violence and child abuse not being grounds for anyone to interfere with athletes continuing to entertain their adoring masses — I was all too aware that my stake in the game is low. I’m invested in families and children and peaceful homes. I care not at all about football. So it’s too easy a stone to hurl.
    And you are spot on to caution us all to look to our own dissonance. It is — and should be — every bit as glaring as the clash of values and life as it is lived that we can all too gleefully identify in others.
    I believe we need to own our own stories, to speak them without shame, and to live as authentically as we are able. And I believe that we need to treat each person we deal with as the main character in their own life, to accord them the attention and respect that they are due in the time we have in their story. My alteration is making sure I am mindful in my encounters and gentle in my assessments about those around me.

    • Shel, thank you for your words here, thanks for being intentional about your alteration, and thanks for being who you are–someone who I knew would take this post seriously!

    • Outstanding! I dig it when voicing something we are struggling with puts our problem in front of someone with a solution. Reduced waste and local to boot: Your sister to the rescue!

  8. Great post, Kelly. I’m reflecting on the commonplaceness of violence in football and wonder of its connection to the work we send them to do. The environment of professional sports seems to have become so toxic in many respects and the violence issues bleeding-literally-out into their personal lives-is not surprising when you think about worshiping high performance at all costs- steroid use, 1/3 of pro football players sustaining serious and life changing traumatic brain injuries, etc. Why do we condone this in our society? I think you’re dead on with “We believe one thing and we do something different. And to tolerate the dissonance, we stop looking in the mirror.” Now, we just have to be willing to tolerate the pain that comes from looking in the mirror.

    Listen to Frank DeFord’s commentary:

  9. I appreciate the sentiment, but I have some doubts.
    Are we really certain that, to use your example, that “Made in China” means the conditions are everything you describe? I’m not. I recall a horrible story on NPR a couple of years ago about conditions at the iPhone factory that ended up being exposed as a fabrication. My good intentions (the few I have) can be used against me.

    I also struggle a bit with separating belief from action. To my way of looking at it, I sometimes struggle to be honest with myself about what I value. Frankly, some of what I value is petty, trashy and small. Today, I’m OK with that. My discomfort in life has always traced back not to choices I’ve made, but not being OK (or honest with myself) about the choice.

    Finally, too often these discussions are framed as either/or. “…curb our appetite…” Why? This is old thinking – thinking that got us here in 1st place. This thinking says “There is not enough” This is thinking rooted in competition, and lack. If we want to escape the trap we will have to find a way to make this new way of living you describe progressive, pleasurable, perfect and pretty.

  10. Thanks for the great post Kelly. Yes it is so easy to point a finger at others but harder to look at our own weaknesses. I was listening to a radio this morning about doing a kind act to a complete stranger and then I read your post and it reminds me that we can actually start to share values like generosity and selflessness right where we are in our little corner. These values will continue to affect lives even after we are gone. The pressure is to put material gains and creature comforts above all else and recently I felt it when my daughter chose to touch lives instead of going for more lucrative alternatives.
    So thank you for the timely reminder. I want to support her decision wholeheartedly and encourage her to care more for others less fortunate rather than chase fleeting and temporal rewards.

  11. I gave up watching football years ago because what used to be somewhat elegant has become an exhibition of brutality. Initially, the brutality was incidental to the game, a byproduct of stopping the ‘other team’ from advancing. But, somewhere along the line, the idea seeped into people that crippling or disabiling key members of the ‘other team’ was an effective playing strategy. And then the game became viscerally unpleasant to watch. So, I stopped. Well, now and then I’ll leave the set on as a sort of background noise. Maybe to kill time. But I’m not emotionally invested in football. I don’t care about it the way I used to care. I realize that every play, for each player, is like being in an automobile accident. And, with that in mind, it’s hard to enjoy watching people purposefully colliding. It isn’t even mildly cathartic to watch. Trying to watch it makes me cringe.
    As for “made in China”, I simply won’t buy anything with that on it. It makes shopping difficult and more expensive…but I look upon it as economic integrity mixed with human rights.

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