Brute Force, Cohabitation, and the NFL

Pat Fagan is Director and Senior Fellow of MARRI and Christina Hadford is Associate Editor of MARRI at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Christian Post on December 19, 2014.


Domestic abuse scandals have rampaged through the NFL: Greg Hardy, Rod Smith, Anthony Ray Jefferson, and most recently, Ray Rice. In response, the NFL launched a "thorough review" of its personnel conduct policies, management assembled "critical response teams" to address future violence, and Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) called a congressional hearing to discuss policies related to domestic violence. Unfortunately, however, violence will not wane until efforts are taken to mitigate its cause rather than just control its effects.

To initiate lasting and effective change, the NFL needs to encourage purposefully high standards of sexual conduct. For too long, the NFL has engrossed itself in the sexual revolution by propagating semi-pornographic material and implicitly championing casual sex—both of which are a breeding ground for violence.

One need not search hard to find examples of this in the NFL. For instance, in 2004, with an estimated 140 million people viewing the halftime performance of the Super Bowl, Justin Timberlake unstrapped part of Janet Jackson's top and exposed her breast. In one football ad repeatedly aired on television, actress Nicole Sheridan paraded through the men's locker room in nothing but a towel. The ad ends with her dropping the towel in order to keep a player in the locker room. Studies show that this visualization of sexuality degrades women and generates abuse. Men who view pornography regularly have a higher tolerance for abnormal sexual behavior, including rape, sexual aggression, and sexual promiscuity. Furthermore, exposure to sexual imagery is associated with greater acceptance by men and women of attitudes that sexually objectify women.

 The NFL's culture of cohabitation and premarital sex is especially conducive to violence. In addition to their love for football, Hardy, Smith, Jefferson, and Rice shared at least one other commonality: each player was or had been cohabiting with the woman he beat. This is, of course, not to blame any of these women for their abuse. Rather, the link between cohabitation and domestic violence highlights the massive attitude differences between the standards for marriage versus the standards for cohabitation—each relationship cultivates a very different environment. Social science data confirm this claim. For example, cohabiting couples were more likely to face difficulties with adultery, drugs, and alcohol than couples who did not cohabit. Those couples who lived together prior to marring were more likely to exhibit marital issues like permissive sexual relationships and drug problems. Not surprisingly, therefore, cohabiting couples tend to have lower relationship quality, less stability, and more frequent and more extreme disagreements.

Analysis published by the Heritage Foundation, found the frequency of abuse among cohabiting couples is alarmingly high. The rate of violence among cohabiting couples is double the rate for married couples, and the rate for severe violence is almost five times as high. Cohabiters are more likely than married couple to be aggressive, and are more likely to hit, push, or throw things at their partner. The rate of depression among cohabiting women is nearly five times that of married women, and cohabiting individuals are more than twice as likely as married couples to have a mental illness.

The same Heritage study also found that having unmarried, cohabiting parents also poses a number of risk factors for children. Data shows that children of divorced or never-married mothers are six to 30 times more likely to suffer from serious child abuse than are children raised by their married biological parents. As British data shows, children whose biological mother cohabits are 73 percent more likely to die from abuse than are children whose biological parents are married. We do not have analogous US data on fatalities, but we do have very good federal data on rates of abuse that substantiate these claims.

If the NFL and congressional leaders want to reduce domestic violence, they will need to encourage monogamous relationships on the fast-track toward marriage. A simple survey among NFL players will most likely prove that those in intact marriages have the lowest rate of abuse, while those in cohabiting relationships have the highest. Collecting and disseminating such data is necessary because it will empower individuals with the facts to make educated life decisions; it will debunk the false portrayal of cohabitation as a feel-good life choice, and expose its harsh realities: cohabitation produces risk factors for a slew of marital problems like drinking, fighting, and violence.

The NFL needs a counterbalance to the awful role modeling involved in this latest NFL scandal involving Ray Rice. This counterbalance is to be found in the players who are married, and who did not cohabit before marriage. That would tell a powerful and good story: one just at their fingertips if they will only use it.