Giants Set New Tone For NFL Inclusion

ByJane McManus ESPN logo
Monday, November 2, 2015

Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich has become used to discussing deeply personal subjects, be it his own cancer or discovering that his wife, Danielle, had experienced domestic violence. Last week, Herzlich was one of four NFL players featured in a new series of ads from Joyful Heart and No More, the umbrella organization raising awareness about domestic violence.

"Last year, right after everything happened [with the Ray Rice situation], there was a push to put a positive spin on everything," Herzlich said. "I didn't want to have that positive spin last for a year and then everyone forget about it like it was a one-time issue. It's not. If you try to push it away and you try to not talk about it, it makes it harder for people to say, 'I'm having a problem here and I need help.' ... Put your own pride aside and help the people who need the help."

The NFL's road away from the video of Ray Rice punching his then-girlfriend, Janay Palmer, has had potholes, but the voices of Herzlich, the Steelers' William Gay and others in the league have been an important reminder that there are a lot of men in the NFL who understand this issue and want to discuss it.

Importantly, members of the Giants' front office were thinking the same thing.

Herzlich didn't want to see the NFL's commitment to the issue fade after last year, but neither did his team's co-owner, John Mara. The Giants invited Joyful Heart founder Mariska Hargitay to take part in the coin toss before last week's game. The team also participated in the first public service announcement an NFL team has done with the You Can Play Project, an organization that encourages inclusivity on all fields.

"The message is simply, sexual orientation shouldn't be a factor in deciding whether someone should play a sport or participate in an activity," Mara said. "It just shouldn't."

In one week, the Giants put the team logo behind two subjects that until recently had been third-rail discussions in professional sports.

"There is support," Herzlich said. "When something is important to a teammate -- we talk about this being a family all the time -- when there's something important to your brother you're not just going to blow it off. You're going to figure out what it is.

"Eighty-five, 90 percent of men don't do anything wrong and everybody thinks it's all terrible. But it's the fact that not a lot of the large percentage steps up. Not a lot of people say stop the jokes, stop degrading people, stop the abuse."

Mara admits that there was some concern that taking such a public stand against domestic violence could further associate the league with an act many players would never commit, but risked it anyway.

"One of the things we were a little leery of: We have players speaking out. Does that worsen the image some people have of players when it's such a small, small percentage of players that are involved in any type of criminal activity?" Mara said. "But it's still the right message to get out there, so if it ends up hurting our image in some quarters, then so be it. It's still the right thing to do."

For the You Can Play spot, the Giants recruited wide receiver Victor Cruz, cornerback Prince Amukamara, kicker Josh Brown, defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins, center Weston Richburg, linebacker Zak DeOssie, running back Shane Vereen and former offensive lineman David Diehl.

"I think the Giants really set the standard in this area," Amukamura said.

Harry Carson, a former Giant in the Hall of Fame, was pivotal in getting the team involved. Carson talked to ESPN earlier last year about playing with the late Roy Simmons, who was not out during their playing days.

"I was a captain," Carson said at the time. "I can say for sure nothing would've gotten by me if he had been harassed. If he'd come out to us he would've been fine. He would've been the first openly gay player back in the '80s."

Allies and institutional support are so important on these issues. Between its legends, current players and committed front office, the Giants are setting a new tone on some pretty important subjects.