Just a tiny problem with that NFL domestic violence PSA


So, I don’t want to be the person that overly criticizes something that has potential to be net-positive to the world of social justice — but I think the new NFL domestic violence PSA, set to air during the Super Bowl this coming Sunday, represents a missed opportunity. 

The ad is powerful. It comes out of the League’s No More campaign, an attempt to address the issue of domestic violence after the backlash the league received for its handling of charges brought against a number of NFL players, most notably former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. In just a minute, we hear the voice of a woman calling 911 Emergency and pretending to place a pizza order so that her abuser, who is in the room with her, is unaware of what’s actually happening. The 911 dispatcher picks up on the fact that something is wrong and assures her that help, in the form of a police officer, will be coming soon.

It’s scary. It’s meant to make you deeply uncomfortable. And for millions of people across the globe on Sunday, it will. But there’s just…it’s missing something.

That’s not even just my desire to see us get away from the use of state violence as a redress for interpersonal violence, though there are reasons related to my politics around the carceral state that make me wish the focus of this ad wasn’t a 911 call. But my bigger concern is that it focuses on the aftermath of the violence, rather than strategies for preventing it.

The NFL is in a unique position, as one of the most visible arbiters of the cultural definition of masculinity. That definition of masculinity as dominant, violent, and controlling contributes to a culture in which violence against women is not regarded as a serious enough issue to warrant collective outrage. The NFL could be fostering a dialogue with men about how and why this definition of masculinity is dangerous and oppressive. It could be engaging boys and young men in an unlearning process and re-education around the values embedded in these archaic forms of masculinity, and questioning the health and vitality of those models. It should be starting that engagement and dialogue with its players and personnel.

Again, I don’t want to completely shit on this ad. Millions upon millions of people are going to see it and be forced to reckon with it during a time in which they’d like to run away from the issue. They will have to remember that some people don’t have the privilege of turning away. Conversations will be had.

However, this ad also doesn’t really demand anything more from us than the status quo. At the end, it says “When it’s hard to talk, it’s up to us to listen.” But if the only thing we’re being asked to do is have compassion after someone has already experienced violence, we’re accepting that violence as a part of culture. We’re conceding something I’d rather not — that we can’t prevent men from beating women. We can only care for these women’s wounds.

And, I’m sorry, but that’s bullshit. Call me naïve, but I believe there’s something more we can do. I believe we have it within us, if we actually commit ourselves to full social, political, and economic equality, to end violence against women. Part of that requires a deeply uncomfortable conversation directly targeted at men, most of whom would never think of themselves as abusive or violent, but nonetheless were reared in a culture that has found violence against women acceptable.

Of course, offering safe havens and protection for women who have already experienced domestic violence is vital. I don’t mean to undercut that message here. But I’d like more from the NFL, and more from the rest of us. I’d like us to get at the roots of the violence and ensure the seeds never get a chance to grow.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for Feministing.com and Salon. As a freelance writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate his work has been seen online in outlets such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, Al Jazeera English, Gawker, The Guardian, Ebony.com, Huffington Post, The Root, and The Grio.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for Feministing.com and Salon.

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