Zero Tolerance?

Sep 17, 2014

Football photo.JPGZero tolerance:

It’s a phrase I’ve heard several times in the past week in connection with the domestic abuse issues related to NFL players coming to light. This phrase is most often stated by coaches who wish it to be known that their team has a “zero tolerance” policy for players who commit violent or abusive acts toward others. As it turns out, however, there is a wide discrepancy between words and actions.

This week, several NFL players accused or convicted of domestic violence suited up and played in their team’s regular Sunday game. A few very unlucky players accused of the same endured a whopping one game suspension. In only one case, no doubt due to public attention, a player was suspended indefinitely. Certainly there are reasons that the promise of zero tolerance turns out to be empty words.

Of course economics play a role in this issue. Football is big business and with only 16 games in each season, each game counts. Suspending a key player for even one game (not to mention a full season or permanent suspension) creates a big problem for those revenue-producing opportunities. Could it be that our economic interests color our interest in protecting vulnerable human beings? Or is it possible that our reflexive discomfort in picturing the violent abuse of one human being toward another creates the chasm between our words and our actions?

It is my firm belief that this unhealthy discrepancy between what we say and what we mean will continue until we confront the difficult reality of the prevalence of abuse. It is viscerally and emotionally uncomfortable to consider the reality of abuse inflicted on those who–by age, strength, or status–are vulnerable. Honestly, I would much rather spend my Sunday afternoon watching my favorite football team commit sanctioned acts of violence on the football field than to imagine a football player brutally beating his 4 year old son or a 216 lb. football player knocking his fiancé unconscious and carelessly dragging her out of an elevator.

As the leader of a non-profit which needs to engage the community in support for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse, I thoroughly understand the discomfort that the topic of abuse (especially sexual) engenders. It is deeply uncomfortable to take in the overwhelming and destabilizing reality of any kind of abuse, not to mention the sexual abuse of a child. Yet this reflexive blindness and deafness allows us to exist in an extremely dangerous double standard. Our unwillingness to actually create a cultural norm for zero tolerance of abuse allows us to continue to turn a blind eye to violent acts, excusing what must not be excused.

One would hope that the NFL will do the right thing and actually stand behind their promises of action. One would wish that it wouldn’t take a public scandal to force action. Perhaps when we are able to tolerate our own discomfort (be it emotional, economic, or otherwise) our actions will match our words. Until that time, however, zero tolerance is a meaningless phrase and we perpetuate a culture that enables abusers and worst of all, leaves those most vulnerable unprotected.

Janice Palm, M. A., LMHC

Shepherd's Counseling Services, Executive Director



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