An altered NFL/Covergirl ad circulated in social media to protest domestic abuse. [#CoverGirlcott/Twitter/@23Glick]

The Covergirl Baltimore Ravens ad with the digitally altered bruised eye caught the attention of many and has spurned a contentious debate about domestic violence and the NFL’s stance.

We shouldn’t be surprised that the NFL hasn’t taken steps sooner toward addressing issues of players committing acts of violence against women.

While the NFL is trying to navigate through a media blitz, disgruntled fans and doubtful sponsors, an overlooked point is how women are portrayed visually within the league and their sponsors.

From the NFL cheerleaders’ uniforms, a Victoria’s Secret retail store at Cowboys stadium and designating Covergirl as an official sponsor, one can see a consistent theme of objectifying women.

Sociologist Erin Hatton has noted that “sexualized portrayals of women have been found to legitimize or exacerbate violence against women and girls, as well as sexual harassment and anti-women attitudes among men and boys.”

The NFL has funded studies over the last four years to determine the personality, buying habits and preferences of women to increase their female fan base to 46 percent and capitalize on their buying power. Yet, they are missing the mark on empowering their female fans.

Instead they have joined the visual milieu that contributes to a larger social problem of violence, negative attitudes and sexual harassment toward women.

An important example is the sexualized images of women seen in the “Get Your Game Face On” NFL campaign by Covergirl. These types of images are totally wrong for building team spirit, strengthening a female fan base and building a brand.

How do makeup, football jerseys and women provoke the wrong message?

It is all in the way the image is constructed. If you break down the coded visual messages you can see they suggest more than meets the eye. And by the way, this method could be applied to how the NFL cheerleaders dress and act.

Covergirl created fantasy inspired “looks” for each team in the NFL. Each “look” dons the team colors, but not the spirit of team competition. Rather, the spirit of sexual innuendos — from the makeup to the models.

A feature of the ads is the poses, which suggest a sense of submissiveness rather than empowerment. Other ads show a partially opened mouth covered with bright, colored lipstick, pointing to sexuality.

Most of the female models are painted referencing exotic animal-like features on their faces, inferring women are animals. This theme of portraying women as animals points to historical sexual stereotypes of women. During the Renaissance era, prostitutes were commonly called animal names.

Many of the models given animal features are African-American women. This is troubling, as it perpetuates further stereotypes.

A recent study noted that people “perceive sexualized women differently.” In fact, both women and men “rate these women as less intelligent, and even have less concern for their physical well-being.”

As the NFL addresses some of the players’ struggles with domestic violence, they should think about their game face in light of how women are portrayed not only within their organization, but with its sponsors and fans.

If the NFL truly wants to keep an empowered female fan base, they need to get the right game face on.

Michelle Hays is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Visual Arts at Texas Woman’s University. She has practiced in the field of visual communication design for more than 20 years.

is a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project.