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The Breathtaking Power of the NFL’s Domestic Violence Super Bowl PSA

When I heard that the NFL had produced a 60-second Super Bowl spot to combat domestic violence and sexual assault, I rolled my eyes. As someone who is perhaps justifiably cynical about league commissioner Roger Goodell’s actual commitment to ridding the league of predators and abusers, I was not sure what to expect. After all, it’s no secret that the National Football League has long swept under the rug the issue of domestic violence among its players. And the league’s No More campaign, while laudable in and of itself, also appears to be a desperate attempt to build some kind of credit in this regard. The goal seems to be to provide at least the illusion of caring about a rampant public health issue that threatens the lives of adults and children of all genders. So I didn’t have high hopes for whatever ad they had put together.

Then I watched the spot.

This is powerful creative work of the type not often applied to such a serious issue. Usually, public service announcements are awkward and involve some celebrity reading stilted copy direct to camera. But in this spot, we see no celebrities. We don’t actually see anyone at all. What we hear is a conversation between two people – one a 911 operator, the other a woman who has faked a phone call to order a pizza, because her abusive partner is in the room with her. And what we see are flashes of images from their home – the impression of a fist in a wall; rumpled bedsheets; books and other items scattered along the floor. We understand that some kind of fight has taken place in this home, and that we are witnessing only the aftermath of what was probably a brutal experience for the woman whose voice we hear on the phone.

What struck me the most about this ad is how quiet it is. There is no screaming; no sound of that unseen fist hitting the wall. There is no blood. There are no bruises. We see none of the imagery we may have come to associate with cinematic depictions of domestic violence or sexual assault. We are not witnesses to the act that inspired this phone call. And that, to me, is where the ad’s creative team truly gets it right.

Domestic violence can be loud and dramatic and impossible for all but the heartless to ignore. It can also be quiet and imperceptible to an outsider. It doesn’t always involve yelling. It doesn’t always involve the crash of a glass thrown against a wall. Sometimes it’s just what happens almost silently behind a closed door at a party. Sometimes it’s just what happens in the car on the way home from that party. Most often, it happens when no one else is around. Abusers aren’t often stupid. They don’t usually want to be caught.

Bruises can often be hidden under clothes and makeup. Beyond that, some domestic violence leaves no physical evidence at all. There are ways to hit people without leaving a physical mark. This type of abuse is insidious in its own way, because when it happens to us (men, women, children, whomever) we may say to ourselves, “Well, they didn’t really hurt me. There was no blood. There is no bruise. It didn’t even hurt that bad.” And if it wasn’t that bad, there’s really no reason to tell anyone, right? Better to keep it quiet, so as not to embarrass anyone (least of all ourselves).

The ad gets something else right, too. The camera takes us through a tastefully appointed home that appears to be a rather comfortable place to live. Its occupants may not be rich, but they certainly seem to have enough money to live on. Why is this important? Well, it avoids the stereotype that domestic violence is a problem only for folks in a lower-income bracket. The truth is that domestic violence can happen to anyone, regardless of how much money they’ve got in their checking account. That’s an important note to hit, and the ad gets the message across without explicit lecturing.

This will be the very first Super Bowl ad to address domestic violence and sexual assault. It will air on a national drinking holiday, when calls to domestic violence hotlines are said to increase dramatically. The NFL is a greedy, corrupt organization, but thanks to public outcry in the wake of the Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice cases, the league may actually have been embarrassed into doing something truly helpful.

It’s a start.

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