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The NFL's Ray Rice lesson: Football is about more than football

We have allowed people in the NFL to hide behind X's and O's for too long. The Ray Rice incident has made it clear: It's time they all took a stand on the very key societal issues they are helping shape.

We've been told a lie for generations about football being just about football. Coaches and players should be allowed to focus on winning games in a vacuum. If they don't want to engage in conversation about America's most important topics that's fine - they have football games to worry about.

Football players and coaches need to focus on football, we've been told. Yet the truth - as told by the media coverage, the TV ratings, the ubiquity of NFL jerseys and these very men's bank accounts - tells us something very different:

Football is about far more than football.

Football is king. It's the most popular sport in the United States - as many Americans name football their favorite sport as all of the rest of sports combined. The NFL is the king of kings.

Whether it's a star running back beating his fiancee, a league-leading wide receiver smoking pot or a gay rookie coming out of the closet, the NFL has been thrust more and more into the cultural spotlight of our society here in the United States. The league is a highly visible microcosm of the struggles we experience as Americans every day. The people in football, whether they like it or not, shape how we think about these issues.

We have to rid ourselves of this idea that football is just about football. It's not. The power of that singular sport in American society goes far beyond what happens on the field. Football - and the sport's caretakers from high school coaches to the NFL commissioner - shapes how people (largely our society's men) think. It builds priorities for our culture. It sets the national agenda.

Winning on a football field shouldn't be the priority. Protecting women, tackling real drug-addiction issues and ensuring equality for LGBT in sport should be.

Guys like Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin shouldn't get away with remaining silent on today's issues just because they want to.

"I have nothing to say regarding that video," Tomlin said today when asked about the leaked video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee. "Absolutely nothing. So don't ask."

That response should not be allowed by the media or the fans. Tomlin is the head coach of one of the most storied franchises in all of American sports. As one of the few black head coaches in the history of the NFL his thoughts and opinions matter a great deal. Whether he wants to say something on the issue or not, fans and members of the media should pressure him at every turn to respond. If that means Tomlin walks out of his own press conference, then so be it. That's how important these issues are.

Sadly, the cowardly hiding like that of Tomlin is becoming the mantra of some of the league's head coaches.

"It's really not my place to have a reaction," Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said when asked about the video and the Ravens' response to it.

Yes, Mr. Lewis, it is your place. And if you think being the head coach of an NFL franchise absolves you of stating your views very clearly on this issue, you don't belong as one of the faces of the city of Cincinnati.

We simply cannot allow players, coaches and front office executives - from both the team and the league - to sit behind this excuse that something isn't "a football matter" anymore. We let Michael Jordan get away with it for an entire career. We shouldn't let anyone else off the hook.

The League embraces causes when it suits its needs. This October you'll see pink splashed across the league - from cleats to towels, hats to gloves - to support breast-cancer awareness and help bring in more female fans.

Yet the coaches of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals won't comment on the beating of one of those women.

To be sure, there are moments when we should allow people some space. An Olympic athlete in the heart of the two most important weeks of her life just doesn't need to answer political questions. An NFL coach days before the Super Bowl doesn't need to be asked broader cultural questions. There are times when we can and should afford people all the room they need to do their specific job and do it effectively.

But when a video is released of an NFL player punching his fiancee unconscious, Mike Tomlin, I don't care that you're working on a short week. Answer the damn question.