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Football and Higher Education: Presidents Need to Speak Up and Speak Out

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Here's what I do not understand -- and apparently I am in good company: Football player Ray Rice apparently physically harms his then-fiancée (now wife Janay Palmer Rice) in an elevator and is videotaped (for all to see) literally dragging her from that elevator. His punishment from the NFL is a two-game suspension (yes, two) and a salary forfeiture for a third game. That's a weaker punishment than is handed out by the NFL Commissioner for a player smoking marijuana or stomping hard on another player in an actual NFL season game. Then, the NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, who had a chance yesterday in Canton to address the issue more effectively, staunchly defended his actions on behalf of the NFL. In short, we (the NFL) handled this correctly.

The punishment just does not seem to fit the crime, as the saying goes. And the situation is not improving, and the explanations and apologies are actually making matters worse. One twisted argument, endorsed by the Commissioner, is that Ray Rice had never attacked his wife before and has not done so again. That's like saying: Yes, I did drive drunk that night and killed someone, but I've never done it before and have never done it since. Really? Then, the Commission sees no harm in the victim and the accuser are interviewed by the League together, a significant misstep at ferreting out the trust in the world of domestic violence. And, despite the hue and cry about the diminutive punishment, the NFL is both standing by and defending the sanctions handed down. In response, Keith Olbermann has called for the Commissioner's resignation.

I also do not understand why more college presidents are staying silent about this issue when we have an opportunity to use our bully pulpit to speak up and speak out. I appreciate the risks of using one's position to address issues that have no link to the university community. But, about this there is no question: Sexual assault is a major issue on America's campuses. The reaction of Roger Goodell to the Ray Rice incident offers an opportunity for educators to express our concerns about on the rapes and assaults occurring on campuses, the questionable use of the athletic department to investigate these issues, and the need for punishment that fits the crime. As Stephen James Nelson states in Chapter 4 of his book on college leadership, one of a president's weightiest possessions is the use of the bully pulpit.

Here's what I do understand: The damage done by this incident and accompanying punishment sends a message that reverberates loudly and clearly well outside the confines of professional sports: violence against women does not need to be taken very seriously, and when such violence is committed, significant consequences are not required. Whether or not one believes Ray Rice's recent public mea culpa (which has a remarkable linguistic faux pas on his being an Ambassador for Domestic Violence), it is the Commissioner's actions that set a tone and proffer a message that unacceptably permeates our society and culture.

I believe that I as well as other college presidents have an obligation to speak out and share the impact this NFL messaging has on our students and our campuses. We are, in a sense, in an analogous position to Goodell with respect to our "league" and our "players" --- we are responsible for our institutions and our students. And, we cannot shy away from articulating a different message: Rape, violence against women and sexual harassment are disturbing and unacceptable in every setting and will be punished. We cannot and will not condone such behavior and shy away from the truth. And, we must commit to seeking out the expertise of others to guide us in protecting victims and determining sanctions.

Curbing and resolving sexual violence on our campuses in a sensitive, meaningful and sustained manner is our collective public and private responsibility. These efforts, often nascent, are sorely impeded when the reaction and response from one of America's favorite games is: "no big deal." The NFL's treatment of Ray Rice feels a shot across the bow for most of us. Apart from the damage to Janay Palmer Rice, the NFL's sanctions undermine our joint and growing efforts to protect students everywhere. Where's the justice in that? And, where are our Presidential voices when they are really needed? Why have we vacated the bully-pulpit?