The End of the NFL? Latest Sexual Harassment Scandal Is One the League Cannot Ignore

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The NFL shield logo is seen following a press conference at the George R. Brown Convention Center on February 1 in Houston. Tim Bradbury/Getty Images

At this point, the list of NFL scandals is longer than the list of injured players. But on Monday, new developments from a sexual harassment lawsuit filed in October rocked the league, which really says something, since the NFL seemingly always has a crisis to handle.

The NFL Network suspended high-profile personalities Marshall Faulk, Heath Evans and Ike Taylor. The lawsuit claimed they—and others who formerly worked at the station—engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct toward Jami Cantor, a wardrobe stylist who worked at the network for nearly a decade. One of the disturbing allegations said Faulk dropped his pants and demanded oral sex from Cantor.

Consider the NFL's myriad issues the past few years:

  • Ray Rice's domestic abuse case, which was arguably mishandled nearly every step of the way.
  • The rash of injuries to high-profile players, including Aaron Rodgers, Carson Wentz, J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson and Odell Beckham Jr.
  • Because of the injuries, there are fewer talented players on the field.
  • Inspired by Colin Kaepernick—who claimed he was blackballed by the league—players protested the oppression of black people in America by kneeling during the national anthem, sparking a controversy that engulfed the conversation around the league for most of the season. President Donald Trump made it his mission to go after the NFL players who demonstrated, as some fans claimed they planned to boycott the league.
  • While the NFL is still a ratings monster, there has been a decline, which could threaten the most important source of revenue for the league: TV deals.
  • Despite being handed a contract extension this year, Commissioner Roger Goodell struggled to navigate rough waters, feuding with one of the most powerful owners, Dallas's Jerry Jones, and the league's best player, Tom Brady, over the much-maligned Deflategate saga.
  • And then there's the specter that hangs over all these crises: the NFL's concussion problem, which was long ignored (or actively suppressed) by the league. It's not going anywhere, and neither are the damning ramifications of CTE, the degenerative brain disease found in a number of deceased players, some of whom died by suicide. It's an existential issue for the league, one that could lead to far fewer kids playing football and scores of fans wondering if it's immoral to even watch the sport.

But the NFL's most recent issue—the sexual harassment allegations—might be the one that brings a number of the league's longstanding problems to light. It involves high-profile names like Faulk, Taylor and Evans, as well as departed famous personalities like Warren Sapp, Donovan McNabb and former executive Eric Weinberger.

CTE, while an issue that comes from the very nature of the sport, is a problem that can arguably be kicked down the road. The NFL has done its best to push the issue aside and do what it can—or at least look like it's doing all it can—to make the sport safer. And CTE is an internal thing, a medical issue that's hard to comprehend in the moment, and it remains challenging to pin down exactly who suffers from the disease before it's too late.

Sexual assault and harassment, however, are perhaps more difficult for the public to ignore. The allegations against the NFL Network come at a time when misconduct allegations are toppling media giants left and right: Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose and Al Franken, to name just a few of the many. That cultural shift brings eyeballs, outrage and anger to the issue from people who might typically ignore yet another controversy with the NFL.

This all isn't to say the NFL is going to disappear tomorrow. But in the coming weeks, we'll learn more about these allegations. If they're true, we'll likely learn who knew what, when they knew it, and what they did or did not do to prevent sexual harassment. It's not unlikely more people connected to the league will be accused of misconduct—it has become clear that men, especially those with immense power (of which there are many in the NFL), have been doing these terrible things for years without ramifications.

There is a movement bigger than the NFL afoot in the culture—one that cannot be pushed under the rug. And if it stays in the news, people—many who didn't care about the league—are going to learn about everything else that's gone wrong with NFL in the past few years.

It seems unimaginable that Sundays in America wouldn't be devoted to the NFL, but there comes a breaking point where the scandals and controversies and problems have simply piled too high. While the sexual harassment case will probably not be the end of the NFL, we may look back and see it was the true beginning of the free fall.