THE BLOG
09/09/2014 04:12 pm ET Updated Nov 09, 2014

What Ray Rice Should Mean for NFL's Female Fan Base

Ronald Martinez via Getty Images

If the men of the NFL won't stand up against violence toward women, then the women of the NFL need to.

According to Adweek, the Super Bowl was the most watched TV program among women this year. Sure, there was Bruno Mars. But more and more women are coming to football for, well, the football. These days, 46 percent -- nearly half -- of NFL fans are female, representing a significant shift in the sport's traditionally male-dominated audience. Fashion magazines like Vogue and Glamour run stories on football fashion and Q&As with athletes. For the second year, Marie Claire included a multi-page insert in its fall fashion issue featuring tips on what to wear to a game, how to host a football party at home, and quotes from stylish "fangirls" talking about why and how they love the sport.

Indeed, the NFL has worked very hard to cultivate this female audience through rigorous marketing efforts like female-oriented sports programming, pop-up clothing boutiques at stadiums, branded home goods offerings like wine bottle holders and cheeseboards, and partnerships with nail polish brands to create sports-themed manicures ("fanicures"). There have been campaigns and products and million dollar efforts designed to welcome female fans to the sport. That Marie Claire special? It was sponsored by NFL.com.

On the surface, this would seem to be an encouraging move: A traditionally male-oriented, often female-exclusionary sport recognizing that fans can be, and are, of either gender. And yet, in its handling of running back Ray Rice's assault against his then-fiancée, now-wife, Janay Palmer Rice, the NFL has proven that it does not care about women. As far as I'm concerned, this leaves women little choice but to return the favor. Can you believe in women's rights and enjoy football? Can you be angry about Ray Rice and the NFL's inadequate handling of him but still feel okay about watching the game? The answer, to both, is no.

The NFL wants your money. But that, it has become clear, is all you are to them: a revenue source, someone to buy more jerseys and sit in more seats. After all: It was only yesterday, after the full video of Ray Rice punching Janay Rice was released, that the Baltimore Ravens terminated his contract and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him indefinitely. Goodell's first move back in May, when just part of the video was released -- the part that "only" showed Ray dragging an unconscious Janay out of the elevator -- was a two-game suspension. It wasn't clear, Goodell said at the time, what had happened in that elevator. Now, of course, it is.

I'd argue it was all along.

Football can be a beautiful sport to watch, a game of skill in which extraordinarily talented men do incredible things with their bodies. It is a game that, yes, requires and rewards a certain level of aggression. But the best players are the ones who unleash their aggression at the right times, and can do so with control and precision. On your fiancée in an empty elevator is not one of those times. That said, one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch, though I'd argue that in this case, there's more than one: Ray Rice, Roger Goodell, and the fans who continue to watch despite all evidence pointing to the fact that the NFL condones mistreatment of at least half its fans.

Goodell kept Ray Rice in the league because he thought Rice was someone people wanted to see play. If, however, it becomes clear that at least half of the league's fans emphatically do not want to see Ray Rice, or any other woman beater, play -- and, by the way, won't be buying any of your feminized game jerseys up for sale on NFL.com either -- then it's possible change will start to happen. If the men of the NFL won't stand up against violence toward women, then the women of the NFL need to. That starts with those of us who watch it.

Or, should I say, who used to.