Holding Sports Stars Accountable for Violence Against Women

September 10, 2014

The beginning of football season also brought with it a focus on domestic violence in the public eye with the indefinite NFL suspension of and Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice after a video was leaked of him abusing his then fiancée (now wife). A video of him dragging her out of the elevator was released months prior, but only recently did TMZ release the footage of the actual punch, which knocked Janay Palmer unconscious.  Because of the “pre-trial intervention program” that Rice entered in May, prosecutors declined to put him on trial for felony aggravated assault, even after a grand jury indicted him—“very unusual” according to AnneMarie McAvoy, a former federal and state prosecutor. Twitter and Facebook exploded with nods of approval of his suspension and firing from the team, but there are still some folks mocking the victim, including a jovial episode by everyone’s favorite children’s wildlife channel Fox & Friends.

Why does it take a video to cause a football star to get fired when so many players have been convicted of assault in the past? Which presumably means there was more than sufficient evidence? (Also, why does a pretrial intervention program make it sound like the abuse of one’s partner is like a bad drinking problem that can go away when you go to rehab?) It’s good that he was fired because of his actions, but it is still frustrating that he wasn’t held more accountable from a criminal standpoint. But is it surprising? Consider the non-existent trial of Steelers Ben Roethlisburger after an NFL investigation of rape allegations made against him by a 20-year-old at a hotel in Georgia left him suspended for six games (later reduced to four). But criminally? Nothing happened. Mr. Roethlisburger will live on in history as a Steelers superstar. This is the power of the multi-billion dollar sports entertainment industry.

Until last night, most of the focus was on the perpetrator. We’ve now learned that the victim, Janay Palmer, is defending her husband. Ms. Palmer married Ray Rice after the incident in the elevator and came forward in a press conference to defend him. After much scrutiny from yesterday, however, she has withdrawn her social media presence, and her lawyer is declining to comment regarding this silence. The public’s reaction is at best concerned, and at worse, misinformed and cruel regarding her decision to defend Ray Rice and their “loving relationship.” From a psychological perspective, it is entirely understandable why she would defend him. Manipulation, coercion and domination are the hallmarks of an abusive partnership—see this sobering fact sheet from the World Health Organization for explanations of why so many women in particular fall into abusive relationships, worldwide. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, women carry the burden of domestic violence. Apart from the reasons Janay Palmer may have for her stance, the fact remains that it is also none of our business. We are not helping her when we judge her decisions; we are not being supportive of her when we call her weak or ask why she cannot just leave and what kind of example she is sending to other women in abusive relationships. She does not owe you her explanations (though others have gracefully shared theirs). We can hem and haw and judge, but her decision remains her decision.

Ray Rice, the abuser, owes explanations of why he hit her. What we can do as bystanders is offer women who are in abusive relationships our ears and if we can, our assistance, should they reach out to us for help. We can teach men that women do not deserve to be their punching bags, and that they don’t exist to be used as a tool of their rage or a toy to manipulate into a shell of submission in order to nurture their egos.

Ray Rice’s firing may be regarded as encouraging—maybe sports stars are being held a tad more accountable than in the past. It also clearly ties into the fact that everything is recorded now, and once the word is out, it spreads like wildfire via social media. Our rapidly changing technological landscape is also changing law and policy, as the increased availability of proof making convictions easier to come by. What seemingly hasn’t changed, however, is victim blaming and victim mocking. Perhaps these could become a thing of the past with stricter enforcement of laws against violence no matter who you are—famous or not.

Image: Hawk Eyes via photopin