Of all the Super Bowl ads you saw Sunday, one stands above the rest: the broadcast’s first-ever spot against domestic violence.

The minutelong ad was produced by advocacy group No More, with the National Football League donating its internal ad team and the airtime (valued at around $4.5 million for each 30- second commercial). It’s a powerful, chilling ad in which a woman calls 911 under the guise of ordering a pizza because her attacker is in the room with her. According to Ad Week, it’s based on a real 911 call.

It’s incredibly rare, if not entirely out of character, for an ad with such a simple yet somber tone to break up the usual ostentatious levity of Super Bowl commercials. That in itself signals progress: In a season in which fans continued to give Ray Rice standing ovations, such a jarring ad recalibrating our perspective serves as a necessary and welcome reminder that football isn’t what really matters.

Yet the ad is somewhat problematic. Mychal Denzel Smith adeptly noted the “missed opportunity” of focusing on what happens after an attack has occurred rather than taking steps to prevent it. Indeed, anti-domestic-violence and anti-sexual-assault advocates constantly tout education and prevention over deterrence. It’s indicative of the overarching critique of the way the NFL has handled these cases — that the league has been reactive, not proactive, in addressing abuse.

I’ll offer another critique: It still looks as if the NFL is trying to throw money at the problem, hoping to distract us with a high-profile ad that makes it look like the league is taking domestic violence seriously. But we won’t truly know just how much the NFL — an entity that has made disguising inertia as progress an art form — has changed until it is confronted with its next case. That still hinges on being reactive, but the reality is that the league has dug itself such a hole, it’s lost the benefit of the doubt that it’s actually implemented any meaningful reforms.

In fact, Commissioner Roger Goodell didn’t exactly inspire confidence in his annual “state of the NFL” news conference Friday. It was a typical presser in an atypical year: In a season in which the NFL has dealt with domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse and even something as silly as Deflategate, Goodell led off his speech talking about the possibility of eliminating the extra point. And even when addressing domestic violence, he still struggled to talk openly about it, using vague platitudes like “these issues.” For a league that has always favored optics over substance, it was an odd statement.

Then again, it’s not that surprising. The league will only undergo as much reform as it needs to — which is to say none at all. Business is booming, revenues and viewership are at an all-time high, and while some fans and critics will continue to call for change, the majority of football’s consumers won’t force the NFL’s hand.

So we get big, showy displays signaling negligible reform: the “new” personal conduct policy that still keeps the power solely in Goodell’s hands; the news conference in which Goodell said a whole lot of nothing except when he dismissed Rachel Nichols’ smart question about conflicts of interest and literally laughed off the insinuation that his job might be in jeopardy; and even, perhaps, the Super Bowl domestic violence ad. But they’re all built on straw so long as the foundation of the NFL’s business remains strong.

I hope the NFL ultimately proves me wrong. Until that happens, it’s important to maintain a healthy level of skepticism, to not be surprised if, despite all this supposedly forward progress, we still end up right back where we started.


Kavitha A. Davidson writes about sports for Bloomberg View.