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With Dark Humor, Anger And Empathy, Women Respond To The NFL

A Ravens fan trades in her Ray Rice jersey Friday after he was cut from the team over allegations of domestic abuse.
Patrick Semansky
A Ravens fan trades in her Ray Rice jersey Friday after he was cut from the team over allegations of domestic abuse.

As the National Football League scrambles to defend its actions in amid a series of domestic abuse allegations against players, some of its harshest critics have been women. Female fans are a key part of the league's business strategy — the NFL says that women make up 45 percent of its fan base — but they haven't reacted to the scandal with one voice.

Judging by a recent NBC poll, the scandals are not keeping most fans from the game: Nearly 90 percent said the recent controversy hasn't changed how much pro football they watch.

At a Washington, D.C., sports bar, Atlanta native Tara Bell says she's still cheering her beloved Falcons.

"I grew up watching the games," she says. "I've always been a die-hard fan"

Bell agrees the players should be disciplined. But, she adds, "I kind of look at it as, OK, they are human; they make a mistake, but I will support my team. Even if it was there was somebody on the Falcons [accused of abuse], I would probably still support them. I do believe that you're innocent until proven guilty."

Others have been quicker to judge, at least when it comes to the league itself. Take last week's persistent allegations that the NFL covered up a video of Rice knocking his then-fiancee out cold in an elevator.

Comedian Megan MacKay scored a YouTube hit with a searingly sarcastic video she calls a "Ray Rice Inspired Makeup Tutorial."

"So the first step, as always, is foundation, and I'm using a new shade that I just bought called the NFL," she begins. "I really like this color because it'll cover up anything just to save face."

For some women, that kind of cynicism has been building for years.

"I first got disillusioned with football after I graduated from Notre Dame," says Erin Ryan, news editor at Jezebel, a pop culture website for women.

Ryan was a lifelong football fan, but in 2010, a student accused a football player at Notre Dame of sexual assault. After the player's friend sent text messages warning her not to "mess" with Notre Dame football, the woman killed herself.

Ryan decided to boycott Notre Dame games. Then she started noticing the ever-growing list of assault allegations against NFL players.

The recent scandals, she says, "just reaffirmed everything that this gnawing sensation had told me, this idea that the league doesn't really care about its fans. It doesn't care about its players. It just cares about making money."

Ryan can't remember the last regular season NFL game she saw. She recently wrote a column for Jezebel with the headline, "If You Care About Women and Still Support the NFL, You Are a Hypocrite."

For some African-Americans, though, condemning the league is not easy.

"We don't want to demonize these men, whether they're black or white, because they have issues themselves," says the Rev. Marcia Dyson, a victim of domestic violence and part of the Black Women's Roundtable. "Let us help our sons."

The group said it was "outraged" that all four domestic violence experts the NFL called on to help develop new anti-domestic abuse policies are white, even though two-thirds of the league's players are black.

Dyson says that two senior NFL executives, Anna Isaacson and Troy Vincent, have now agreed to meet with the Roundtable. She wants them to understand that many young players come from broken homes and violent neighborhoods.

"But you come with a lot of issues that you have not been able to address, with the immediate gratification and the power that your league now gives you as a star," Dyson says.

Instead of banning players, Dyson wants the league to help them. Her empathy extends to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who could personify a real transformation, she says.

"I'd rather see him stay and become a better person because of this, honestly," she says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.