The National Football League Has a Woman Problem, and Vice Versa

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(Bloomberg) -- For years, the National Football League has tried to sell more tickets, pretzels, and apparel to female fans. But allegations about the league’s emissaries and their behavior toward women keeps getting in the way. 

This week, the NFL Network, which is owned by the league, announced it was suspending Marshall Faulk, Ike Taylor, and Heath Evans — ex-players turned on-air commentators — while company officials investigate claims of sexual harassment made against them and others by one of their former colleagues. (Agents for Faulk, Taylor and Evans didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment). 

In a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, Jami Cantor, a former wardrobe stylist at the NFL Network, alleged that she was routinely harassed on the job. Among other things, she claimed that Faulk groped her breasts, that Taylor sent her a video of himself masturbating in the shower, and that Evans lewdly propositioned her on multiple occasions. She also described harassment by Eric Weinberger, then the network’s executive producer. 

None of this seems likely to enhance women’s affinity for the league and its players. “With the NFL it often feels like it’s one step forward and three steps back,” says Laura Ries, a branding expert in Atlanta. (A spokesperson for the NFL didn’t respond to an interview request). 

The allegations hit the league in one of its biggest vulnerabilities. Women make up almost half of the NFL’s current customer base, and moms hold enormous sway over whether their children are allowed to play the sport. Commissioner Roger Goodell has been scrambling for years to burnish the league’s appeal to female fans.

Breast cancer awareness has become the NFL’s most visible, charitable cause. The league has promoted youth sports for girls, launched outreach campaigns in magazines like Marie Claire, and made CoverGirl the “official beauty sponsor of the NFL.”

In 2016, it began hosting an annual women’s summit during the week of events leading up to the Super Bowl. The first iteration featured a keynote address by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Jane Skinner Goodell, the wife of the commissioner, helped with pre-summit hype. 

“If you think about it, 45 percent of the fan base of the NFL is women, that’s growing, so it kind of makes sense to me,” Jane Goodell told USA Today at the time. “It’s an opportunity for the league to listen to what their fans want, to focus more on women.” 

The sexual-harassment allegations at the NFL Network, though, remind female fans of the league’s problems with sexism, which have been a regular area of concern at least since the infamous harassment of Lisa Olson, a sports reporter at the Boston Herald, in the New England Patriots’ locker room in 1990.

The league has since weathered one high-profile scandal after another. Recent allegations have pointed to Greg Hardy, Ben Rothlisberger and Brett Farve. In September 2014, TMZ released a video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice beating his then-fiancé. The NFL had already suspended Rice for two games related to the incident, a punishment that Goodell later admitted was too light. The National Organization for Women called for Goodell to resign, and 16 female U.S. senators sent a letter to the NFL, questioning the league’s policies regarding violence against women. 

In response, Goodell announced that the league would deal more severely with allegations of domestic violence. That decision hasn’t been universally popular, either. In August of this year, the NFL suspended Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott for six games following an investigation into allegations of domestic violence. Elliott denied them, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones criticized the punishment -- a stance that did little to diminish the appearance that some team owners still care more about winning on the field than any potential damage to women off of it. 

Then, in October, during a post-game press conference, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton responded dismissively to a question from a female reporter, saying it was “funny to hear a female talk about routes.” The media wasn’t amused. Sample headline via Splinter: “Cam Newton’s Sexist Garbage Shows How Women Covering Sports Just Can’t Win.” 

In December, Warren Moon, an NFL Hall of Fame quarterback and radio commentator for the Seattle Seahawks, was accused of sexual harassment by an executive assistant at his sports marketing firm. In a lawsuit filed in California, Wendy Haskell alleged that Moon had forced her to sleep in the same bed with him on business trips, pulled off her swimsuit during a recent trip to Mexico, and repeatedly walked in on her while she showered. Through his attorney, Moon has denied the claims. 

Now, the work environment at the NFL Network is under scrutiny. The league launched the cable and satellite channel in 2003. It’s become a major platform for the NFL to show off its product, burnish its brand in a criticism-free zone, and to sell boatloads of advertising. In 2017, the network reached 70 million U.S. subscribers, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence, and generated $180 million in advertising revenue.  

At a time when NFL sponsors are under fierce pressure from fans who are angry about players participating in national anthem protests, the NFL Network has managed to stay out of the crossfire -- until now. Collectively, the allegations in Cantor’s suit make the NFL’s nationally distributed media outlet seem less-than-welcoming to women. Sponsors who are already skittish about their support of the league now have another issue on their plate. 

Jenny Dial Creech, the president of the Association for Women in Sports Media and a sports columnist for the Houston Chronicle, said that the organization has periodically met with the NFL to discuss gender-related issues. The league isn’t ignoring the problem, she said, and some progress has been made by particular players, coaches, and teams. 

Even so, she said, sexism remains a problem in certain corners of the league. “There are times when you are going to be called out for being a female,” she said. “Your looks are going to be commented on. There are times when football is explained to me, when obviously I know the rules. Those things still exist. It hasn’t completely gone away. It’s something that we’re always looking at and hoping to see improvement.” 

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.

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