Domestic violence and the NFL: Coaching to accept violence as part of the game

The statistics are staggering, and I’m not referring to pass completions or yards rushed. One in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime. It seems that we are only reminded of this particular statistic when there is a tragedy that sparks a series of news reports, articles and calls for change and greater awareness. We mobilize, give gratuitous air time to those front line providers battling this epidemic every day, and then after a few weeks the crisis resides, the media retreats and we start the cycle once again.

Let’s do it differently this time. 

Last week, pro-football player Jovan Belcher took the life of his infant child’s mother, 22 diana cutaia year-old Kassandra Perkins. Then, he took his own life.  While we cannot blame football for this horrific tragedy, we can use this platform for some real change in the culture of male sport, especially contact or as I like to call them (combat) sports. 

It is not uncommon to hear a youth coach on the sideline yell to a player to stop “playing like a girl”, or to “take off the skirt.” It’s not uncommon to see men in sport mock each other if they show empathy or compassion. It is not uncommon to see coaches use intimidation or punishment to stimulate or “pump up” a player to perform before a game.  We glorify the hits, we encourage the unbridled aggression and we coach to accept violence as part of the game. 

And then we sit back and wonder why we are raising a generation that has no coping skills, no empathy and no self-regulation.  It is the NFLs fault?  No.  Well, maybe a little.  After all it is what young boys aspire to, where youth coaches learn tactics and what the media covers the most.

When a young boy hears the words, “Don’t play like a girl,” he hears something very different than what his coach may have intended him to hear. He learns that power comes from physical strength and that girls don’t have strength, and thus, no power. There is weakness in being a girl and weak is a label you never want.

I disagree with the belief that the NFL needs to wear purple in October to bring awareness to domestic violence.  That may help the cause raise some funds, but it won’t stop the boyfriend from hitting his girlfriend. It won’t stop the pop warner coach from reinforcing the culture of sport that espouses the weakness of the female gender, and it won’t stop the husband from shooting his wife.

Here is what may stop those horrible events:

  • Use sport as the platform to teach young men AND young women how to handle disappointment. Teach them viable coping skills; to manage disappointments and move forward.

  • Coach young men so they will develop pro-social behavior and understand how to respect women. Don’t use violence as a tactic for motivation.  

  • Remove violent and sexist language from our coaching vocabularies. Be intentional around the words we use when working with our young athletes.

  • Be models of behavior on the sidelines. When we settle conflict with aggression and hostility, even if it’s man-to-man, we send a clear message on how we believe conflict should be resolved. It is not what we say at all, it is only what do that teaches young people.

  • Don’t let comments or actions slide. Be intentional about addressing those issues and teaching better skills.

This is an epidemic we can stop, but it doesn’t start with the NFL players. Its starts with the 7-year-old pop warner player. That is where we should be wearing purple and bringing more awareness. 

Diana Cutaia was the Director of Athletics and co-founder of the Sport based-Youth Development program at Wheelock College from 2005-2012. She has over 20 years’ experience in using sport as a tool for positive youth development and is a leading expert on topics such as physical activity, girls in sport, peaceful coaching, and positive cultures in sport. She is the owner of Coaching Peace Consulting, LLC. You can reach her at


Great article. Thank you for having the courage to talk about this issue n

Posted @ Friday, December 14, 2012 2:56 PM by Dawn Watchilla

Sports can engender violence and injury or cooperation, responsibility, and mutuality. The coaches and mentors set the goals and make the difference. Diana demonstrates how to coach positively.

Posted @ Sunday, January 13, 2013 8:54 PM by susan wayne