THE BLOG
07/31/2014 11:58 am ET Updated Sep 30, 2014

#YesAllMen Must Challenge NFL Response to Ray Rice

Co-authored with Don McPherson

Ray Rice's violent assault of his fiancee was disturbing enough. Perhaps equally disturbing: the NFL's response to the incident.

Intimate partner violence is a crime. Full stop. For the NFL to make light of this fact by suspending him for only two games sends the unacceptable message -- to other NFL players and to thousands of young football players and fans across the country who aspire to be like them -- that beating your fiancee unconscious is just not that big a deal.

Compare this two-game suspension with other, harsher responses. In 2013, Josh Gordon of the Cleveland Browns was suspended for the 2014-2015 season for testing positive for marijuana use during the offseason. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma was suspended for the entire 2012 season for accepting bounties.

How can the NFL not take intimate partner violence at least as seriously as drug use or corruption? This is institutional impunity, pure and simple. And it would be bad enough if the NFL were powerless and irrelevant. But professional football is part of the bread and butter -- or beer and bratwurst -- of American culture. It helps set and sustain American social norms. When a player's domestic violence elicits, relatively speaking, a mere shrug, the NFL contributes to the cultural notions that minimize such violence, suggest that it's easy to get away with -- and that encourages individuals and communities to keep silent in its face.

This is why the national conversation we need to have is about how to challenge and transform the social norms and environment of impunity that drive this violence.

And the good news is, that conversation seems to be starting.

Take one look at the reaction to Rice's suspension on sports blogs and social media. Condemnation of the NFL's tepid response has been swift and massive, among men and women alike. And, notably, among players. Take, for example, former player for the New Orleans Saints Scott Fujita (himself once suspended for three games -- though then exonerated -- for accepting bonuses), who tweeted a subliminal message to his wife and daughters in response to NFL's action.

Also, as of today, a full 80 percent of respondents to an ESPN poll said that a two-game suspension was "a joke."

This reaction reminds us of the recent social media response to the hatred of women that -- as Elliot Rodger himself spelled out in his manifesto -- drove Rodger's murderous rampage in Santa Barbara. Then, rather than distance themselves from someone clearly deranged, thousands of men took to Twitter to declare that #YesAllMen have a role to play in challenging even the daily, most micro-forms of violence and discrimination against women.

In other words, from what we've seen so far, it's the NFL that's sending the wrong message -- and their fans and players who are sending the right one.

In doing so, the NFL also seems to be saying: "We're not going to be hard on players because we know the fans will still come out." That's a pretty disrespectful message to fans, too. And it's a two-way street: Fans need to say -- that is, to keep saying -- "Sorry, no. We won't support a team that maintains players who behave that way."

So let's all keep it up, together. Let us all continue to call on the NFL to take Rice's actions seriously, treating them with the magnitude they deserve, and making abundantly clear that violence against women is unacceptable. Let's continue to call on and hear from players who say the same. Let's go public with our own commitments to challenge violence and discrimination against women where we see it, in our own families, communities and lives. Not all men will make it into the NFL, but #YesAllMen can hold it, and themselves, to the highest of standards -- and all of us can change the game, together.

Phoebe Schreiner is the U.S. Country Director of Breakthrough (www.breakthrough.tv), a global human rights organization working to make violence and discrimination against women unacceptable.

Don McPherson is a former NFL player and College Football Hall of Famer. Now a social justice educator, he speaks regularly on college campuses about stopping sexual violence.