Sports | Domestic violence in the NFL

The NFL's toxic culture spills off-field

Trigger warning: this article contains discussion of domestic violence.

Sports media has been taken over again by another American football scandal: the appearance of a video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice assaulting his then-fiancée, now-wife Janay Rice in the elevator of a casino. This incident, and the National Football League’s (NFL) reaction to it, has highlighted a problem with domestic abuse that has existed in the league for some time. However, it does more than just illuminate the NFL’s problems; the Rice case throws into glaring light the way in which institutions of power consistently fail to punish domestic abusers, and by their indifference enable more abuse.

The fact that Ray Rice assaulted Janay Rice has been known about for a while; previously, however, the only available video was of the immediate aftermath, in which Rice drags the unconscious Janay out of the elevator and dumps her on the floor of the lobby. With this evidence in hand, the NFL suspended Rice for two games, even though he had confessed to knocking Janay out. When this lenient punishment provoked criticism, the NFL alluded to the existence of the elevator tape, and said that it contained evidence which made Rice’s violence more understandable. Now that the tape has come out, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell insists that no one in the organization ever saw the tape, and Rice has been cut from the Ravens and suspended indefinitely from the NFL on the basis of this ‘new’ evidence.

While it is still unclear exactly who knew what and when, an Associated Press report refutes the NFL’s claims that it never had access to the elevator tape. In any case, it is certain that Goodell knew that Rice had assaulted Janay Rice when he doled out a tiny two-game suspension, half the length of those given to players for smoking marijuana or using performance-enhancing drugs. The appearance of the video, and the NFL’s response to it, has drawn outrage from a wide variety of sources, with some, such as the National Organization of Women, calling for Goodell’s resignation.

If, as it seems, the NFL trivializes domestic abuse and cares more about maintaining a drug-free league, this attitude is borne out in its players’ behavior. The lack of firm punishments are a tacit approval of abuse, may be responsible for it occurring more frequently than it would otherwise. Domestic violence makes up a disproportionate amount of the crimes for which NFL players are arrested. For example, domestic violence arrests occur in the NFL at 55 per cent more of the rate they do in the general population, whereas drug arrests occur at only 11 per cent more of the general rate. The only other crime that occurs in the NFL at such an unexpectedly high rate is murder.

These statistics raise troubling questions about whether a permissive culture surrounds domestic violence in the NFL. After Rice was suspended for two games, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said, “I stand behind Ray. He’s a heck of a guy. He’s done everything right since.” Goodell also praised Rice, saying, “I was also very impressed with Ray in the sense that Ray is not only accepting this issue but he’s saying, ‘I was wrong.’ […] I want to see people, when they make a mistake, I want to see them take responsibility and be accountable for it.” The league’s handling of its most recent high-profile abuse scandal makes one wonder if it has the will or inclination to do anything about its domestic violence problem. If the league’s standard for holding domestic abusers accountable is a two-game suspension, it is doubtful that the situation will improve anytime soon.

Of course, domestic abuse is a crime, so while the NFL is justly criticized for trivializing abuse, the police and the judicial system are the institutions upon which the responsibility to punish and prevent ultimately rests. The police, upon viewing all the security footage, decided to charge both members of the couple with assault. While the footage does show that Janay rushed angrily towards Rice in the elevator, to call her actions commensurate with his is laughable. In response to her advance, Rice – who, of course, as an NFL running back, has a formidable physique, and is used to having people running at him – decides to strike his fiancée in the jaw. The blow lifts Janay’s feet from the ground; she is almost parallel to the floor of the elevator when her head smacks into the side rail.

After the police’s initial assessment, a grand jury decided that Janay’s charge should be dropped, and indict Ray Rice for third-degree aggravated assault, a more serious charge that carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail. However, instead of taking the case to trial, the police chose to place Rice into a diversionary program, a kind of probation arrangement in which he is obligated to take anger management classes. He also had to pay a $125 fine. If Rice follows the guidelines of his program, the charges will be dropped and he will be left with no criminal record. This kind of punishment is rare in cases of domestic abuse. Sandy Clark of the New Jersey Coalition for Battered Women has expressed dismay at the legal outcome of the case, saying, “With third-degree aggravated assault, I would like to think those [charges] do not wind up being dismissed.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a U.S. public health institute, approximately one in four women in the U.S. experience domestic violence in their lifetime. While rates of reported domestic violence have been going down in the past twenty years, it is one of the most under-reported crimes, with an reporting rate of approximately 25 per cent.

Why is this rampant crime so radically underreported? As the Rice case has shown, powerful institutions in our culture still tend to minimize the seriousness of domestic violence, find ways to defend its perpetrators, and victimize its survivors. This not only causes authority figures to punish domestic abuse inappropriately, but can pressure survivors to claim responsibility for their own abuse. After Ray Rice was suspended initially, he and Janay held a press conference together. Janay said she “deeply regrets the role she played the night of the incident.” The Ravens put that quote in an official tweet, as if to say, ‘See, it was her fault! She even said so!’ Until the NFL, the police, and other powerful institutions stop being so eager to find excuses for domestic violence, it will continue to be an underreported, hidden crime, whose survivors’ cries are not listened too.


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