As I’ve watched the whole NFL domestic violence/Ray Rice incident unfold over the past several weeks, I’ve had a variety of reactions—as has pretty much everyone I know. I haven’t written anything until now because so much was being said, andI didn’t want to be just another voice discussing the failures of the NFL. But now that I’ve listened to a great many people discuss the subject, it occurs to me that there are some topics that have not been covered adequately, at least in the places that I’ve been listening.
I am a big sports fan. As such, I listen to a fair amount of sports radio. During these weeks of non-stop Ray Rice coverage, I’ve heard a lot of conversation on the topic, some of it sensitive and insightful, some pontificating, and some incredibly naïve. I was very gratified to listen to the level of indignation, incredulity, and anger expressed when Roger Goodell first imposed his penalty of just two games. I have continued to be impressed by various male radio hosts’ disbelief that it took Goodell’s actually seeing the tape to understand the severity of the situation. They are not wrong about both the NFL’s culture of violence and its clear lack of concern toward domestic violence victims at any time in the past.
Yes, there is a problem in the NFL. But there is a problem everywhere. Domestic violence is ubiquitous—in sports and out. This is a societal issue—both the violence directed at those who are vulnerable and our lack of ability and/or motivation to put an end to it. I do think that the fact that star athletes are treated with such deference and admiration from the time they are young is part of the problem, and I think that needs to be addressed, but if we focus simply on athletes in this conversation, we are missing a key element of what is taking place and we will fall far short of addressing domestic violence in a meaningful manner.
My next point is one I keep being surprised at having to make in conversation with people I consider enlightened and aware. People continually ask, “Why did Janay Rice marry him? How could she stay?” Until you’ve walked in those shoes, please don’t ask that question. Victims of domestic violence stay for any number of reasons. I can’t begin to know what Janay Rice’s state of mind is. But here are some possibilities: She has a child to care for, of whom Ray Rice is the father; Ray Rice is not the sum total of his violence—he’s a man she fell in love with and whom she may still love when he’s not hitting her; she fears for her life if she leaves, since statistics bear out that the greatest threat to a domestic violence victim’s life is when the individual tries to leave; he takes good care of her and is loving and contrite when he’s not violent; he has isolated her from her friends and family and made her believe that she has no way out and that she doesn’t deserve any better. All of those are possibilities because all of those—and many more—are the stories of victims of domestic violence.
Finally, while I have a great deal of concern for women who are victims of domestic violence in their relationships with men, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that no one should hit another person for the purpose of dominating him or her. (I am going to leave child abuse and Adrian Peterson out of this conversation; I am talking, here, about adults.) We should be outraged by any situation in which someone uses systematic violence against another party. I have often wondered if people would be as outraged if, for example, it was Michael Sam punching his boyfriend in that elevator. To me, the situation is the same. But would others react as they did to a man hitting a woman? Are we so focused on women being weak and men being strong that we will miss, for example, those instances when women are the abusers—in heterosexual and homosexual relationships? And, finally, would all those individuals who were so scandalized by Michael Sam’s kiss with his boyfriend after the Rams drafted him—and so concerned that their children were witness to such a horrifying event—have been anywhere near as concerned if the situation I described above had happened between them? I fear not.
I am encouraged by the conversation that has developed around this issue (at the same time that I worry for Janay Rice, as she is living with a violent man who may well give in to his anger at his wife for having—from his possible point of view—provoked him into destroying his career). I only hope that the larger societal issues are addressed in the course of all of this focus the NFL and its athletes.