Talking to Children About Off-field Violence of NFL Players

ravens-rice-footballThe explicit TMZ video broadcast across the Internet of NFL football star Ray Rice knocking out his wife left no question of the brutality of that domestic assault. And the graphic images of scabbing on Adrian Peterson’s 4-year-old son who he had beaten with a switch made it impossible for fans to deny his violence toward his own son. It’s clear from these recent events that NFL has an issue with off-field violence. 

However, the violent lives of some NFL players has been conveniently swept under the rug by NFL leadership, players and fans, all of whom have participated in the denial of the truth. As the reality of off-field violence surfaces, we adults have to be prepared to answer questions and have discussions with our children, the innocent fans of football who are just now learning what we adults have known but ignored for some time: football is a sport with on- and off-field violence.

Last year we had to tell our youth to take off their Hernandez shirts. Today it’s the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson shirts. Who will it be tomorrow they may ask?

How do parents explain all this off-field violence to their kids? It’s a combination of providing information and teaching right and wrong behaviors. Here are some suggestions:

Assault is wrong, period. Regardless of who you are, it’s never OK to assault anyone. Assault against a partner or a child is never acceptable. It’s illegal and people will be sent to jail for a long time for committing these crimes.

No violence off the field. People who play football, hockey or other violent sports have to know the difference between acceptable on-field and off-field behavior. Leadership must make it clear that those who don’t will be not be allowed to play.

Anger management. Use this as an opportunity to discuss how anger can get out of control if it is poorly handled. Talk to your kids about how they manage their own anger. Give then examples of when they were in control and angry and when they were not in control. Discuss anger management strategies such as taking space and asking someone for help.

Speak at your child’s developmental level. Children younger than age 10 lack the abstract thinking ability to process how a sports star could be both a great athlete and wife beater or child abuser. Avoid discussing details of the violence and turn off the TV if the violence is being discussed during a game or a sports editorial.

Don’t share your opinion on the details of the matter. When talking with older children, you’ll gain information regarding your child’s perspective if you listen to him or her and try to stay neutral while helping them process the events.


Explain the difference between a star and a hero. Athletic talent and performance can make a football player a star, but true heroism is based on strong character and heroic acts. Talk about the best football players as the ones who are able to keep the violence in the game and control their reactions off the field — there is no acceptable double standard.

Define a hero as one who performs heroic acts. This is an opportunity to help your children understand what a true hero is. Provide examples of your own heroes and describe the qualities of those you consider heroic. For example, teachers who take the time to really teach and doctors who save lives every day.

Monitor your children’s celebrity idol worship. Children who are over-focused on celebrities at are greater risk for copying negative behavior.

Explain that people have different personas. If your kids are old enough to understand, explore the contrast between professional athlete’s public personas and true character.  Parents can use this approach to discuss how sometimes people act different ways in different settings.

Use this as an opportunity to reinforce the concept of moral character. Teach your kids about empathy and compassion. Explore your children’s capacity for empathy and find ways to build empathy, such as volunteering to help those in need or instituting an “acts of kindness” initiative at home.

Point out that kids who excel in sports are often seen as role models. If your children are high school athletes remind them that they too might be seen as role models for younger children and they need to be aware of the importance of modeling good behavior.

Help them to understand that being a good person is more important than winning at sports. Sometimes fans glorify sports superstars without knowing much about their character. The desire to identify with the winner contributes to their willingness to overlook bad behavior.

It’s hard to know the right thing to say after a player your child may have idolized is now involved in violence and abuse. Use these tips to help your child, and make the recent violence into learning opportunity.