Where loyalty extends only in one direction

I knew it. Except it’s worse than I thought. Or it’s as bad as I thought but was only surmising.

The NFL, and women who are beaten up by their football player husbands.

Whenever Dewan Smith-Williams sees Janay Rice on television, she feels like she’s looking into a mirror. Smith-Williams, 44, remembers the denial, the secrecy, the sense of isolation, the shame.

But most of all, she remembers the fear of ruining her husband’s career as a National Football League player — the feeling that coming forth, or seeking justice, would destroy her four children’s financial security. She understands that struggle not only because she, too, was a domestic-violence victim, but because she watched so many other NFL wives, many of them her friends, go through the same nightmare. For each of them, it began with their husbands’ attacks and worsened with a culture that, they felt, compelled silence.

They would tell NFL people about it and the NFL people would be super sympathetic, but then they would go away and that would be the end of that.

She and another former NFL wife describe an insular and intensely secretive organization, where loyalty extends only in one direction – everyone protects the NFL brand, but the NFL protects its own interests over everything else. The culture is passed down more by example than diktat. Wives new to the league watch older ones suffer from abuse in silence, and they mimic the behavior. Often, wives and girlfriends confide in each other, but when they do, their advice is to stay quiet, say the two women, one of whom declined to let her name be printed because her ex-husband is still associated with the league.

Well, you see, it’s the NFL – it’s football. Football is kind of like god, except you can kick it.

…the NFL is a unique universe with an overwhelmingly male workforce whose members are lionized in the press and in their communities; a we’re-all-in-this-together ethos; and incentives for the managers, coaches, and union reps to keep negative stories under wraps. Going to authorities, whether police or hospitals, means social exclusion and, more importantly, negative media attention that could end your husband’s career. Justice imperils their belonging and their livelihood.

And apparently they can’t even manage to deal with it internally, which would be inadequate but better than nothing.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, just one-quarter of the 1.3 million American women assaulted by an intimate partner each year report the attacks to the police. But the two wives interviewed for this article claimed the rate of reporting among NFL wives and girlfriends is much lower. They say the league has built a tight-knit culture, similar to a fraternity, with entrenched hierarchies and a fierce sense of loyalty among members. “You get brainwashed. It’s so ingrained that you protect the player, you just stay quiet. You learn your role is to be the supportive NFL wife,” says one of them, the onetime wife of a Saints player who asked to speak anonymously because her now ex-husband is still associated with the league. Otherwise, she says, “You’d cost him his job.”

Tight-knit all-male cultures similar to fraternities with entrenched hierarchies and a fierce sense of loyalty among members are dangerous things. Very dangerous.



  1. says

    Otherwise, she says, “You’d cost him his job.”

    So it’s not the abuse itself that will cost him his job, it’s the reporting that does it. That’s a toxic culture, alright.

  2. jenniferphillips says

    The saddest part of this article for me was the caution that the harsher penalties (still largely theoretical) for domestic abuse put in place by league commissioner a few months ago will actually harm more women, because suspension & loss of income will make abusive players want to blame/lash out at their partners.

    It’s good to see the strong points being made in this and other recent articles about how it’s not just as easy as ‘leave him immediately if he’s abusive’. I think that message (along with demolishing the ‘she had it coming’ fallacy, of course) needs to penetrate the culture before we can start to build the kind of support system that’s really going to make a difference.

  3. iknklast says

    It’s similar to religion, too. I once reported a man about to be ordained as an abuser of female children. They nodded sagely, said something that basically came out to “That’s interesting” and ordained him. I recently found out he has abused others that I didn’t know about.

    Note: He is not Catholic, he is married, and all of his victims are female; we makea big mistake thinking this has anything to do with either homosexuality or celibacy. It has to do with power. He has a ready source of people that he has power over.

  4. machintelligence says

    What I believe the standard for eligibility to play professional football that the NFL would prefer is: If you are in jail, you cannot play.

  5. Dewan Smith-Williams says

    Good afternoon,

    I am writing to inform you that this week I will be speaking with a congress member who has taken the disturbing issue of domestic violence to the Hill. I am excited to share with her to facilitate change in all pro sports.Thank you for keeping the conversation alive.. So that we can make a change.
    I did not get to share about the apartment the players on the team had. The sheriffs department showed up at my house with an eviction notice from the Citrus Creek Apartments. I went to the apartment and it ended up being the place were the players kept their mistresses and girlfriends…. They forgot to pay the rent there.
    I want people to understand and know what really happens to the family’s when the league provide a Cart Blanche environment. Anything goes, the players wish is their command. If you notice no one has made any comment from the league or teams.

    Dewan Smith-Williams

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