Maybe someday, we'll all be able to look back on the Ray Rice scandal and view it as something more than an ugly case of relationship violence that took down a star football player and forced a powerful sports league to face its demons.
Former Baltimore Colt Joe Ehrmann thinks it can be a transformational moment in a long and sad history of violence against women that transcends a single professional athlete or a couple of shocking elevator videos.
"I hope this ends up as a great redemptive story for Ray Rice,'' he said. "I hope he finds his way back in and becomes a leading voice on issues like this. I think it's a redemptive story for him and hopefully for millions of women in this country, as well."
Erhmann isn't just talking through his old horseshoe helmet. He's already a leading voice on issues like this. He's known on the lecture circuit as the "Coach for America" and the author of "InSideOut Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives." He's remembered in Baltimore as a Pro Bowl defensive tackle for the Colts from 1973-80, but he has devoted most of his adult life to shaping the lives of young athletes.
So, after NFL commissioner Roger Goodell recognized he had made a huge miscalculation when he levied only a two-game suspension on Rice for knocking his then-fiancee unconscious in an Atlantic City casino last February, Erhmann was one of a handful of advocates and experts invited to consult with Goodell and help form a new NFL policy regarding domestic violence.
"In his words, after he had kind of blown it with the two-game suspension, he invited six or seven people, most of whom were heads of national organizations that work on issues of domestic violence,'' Ehrmann said. "I was one of those invited up to the meeting to talk about what would an appropriate penalty be and what should the NFL do going forward. Roger was very contrite and certainly had an awful lot of blowback for that two-game suspension, but I felt he walked in there with great integrity of wanting to get this thing correct."
Ehrmann's involvement didn't stop there. He has produced a 40-minute training video that was shown to NFL owners as part of a presentation on domestic violence at their October meeting in New York. That video, now in its final edit, will be sent by the NFL to every high school and college coach in the nation.
It might not be fair to place an outsized share of the responsibility for erradicating domestic violence at the doorstep of the NFL — since the problem has festered throughout human history — but Ehrmann views that as more of an opportunity than a curse.
"I think the NFL has been given this tremendous mantle of leadership in America,'' he said. "As an institution, you can't look to the military. They're a mess when it comes to sexual assault. You can't look to colleges and universities. So I think the NFL has been given an incredible opportunity to be a leading voice on erradicating this particular issue.
"But this isn't a program and this isn't some kind of project. This has to be a long-term sustainable multi-generational approach to this thing. These issues are deeply imbedded in personal and systemic issues and values, so there is no quick fix to this problem."
Ehrmann, who became an ordained minister after his NFL career ended, teamed with his wife, Paula, to create Building Men and Women for Others, a program to address issues of masculinity and femininity as they relate to societal challenges such as domestic violence.
He views the current rash of interpersonal dysfunction in the NFL as a result of what he calls a "crisis of masculinity," and says that it stretches well beyond the world of sports.
"What does it mean to be a man? How does a boy know when he has become a man? How does a man live with his heart open? I think that's what needs to be addressed,'' Ehrmann said. "I think we have young boys getting all kinds of misinformation about what it truly means to be a man. So much of what I do is take that construct of masculinity and break it down. Every man has to define his own masculinity. You can't allow culture and other people to define you. Every man has to define himself. What he's going to stand for. Who he's going to stand with. What he's going to stand against.
"I think if we're ever going to deal with an awful lot of these issues, it goes back to the core issue of masculinity and giving boys alternative ways to be a man that don't involve violence and those kinds of issues."
That's a tall order in a world that celebrates violence in popular culture as well as a very successful sport that places a huge premium on highly aggressive behavior.
"Yeah, and again, it's not an NFL issue,'' Ehrmann said. "I'm 65 years old. My generation of men are the first generation of men held legally accountable for the way they treat women in this country. Violence toward women is historic … it's global … it's been going on forever, and I think with the media and that exposure, I think a lot of these issues are coming to the forefront, but they are certainly not new."