The lackluster response to National Football League (NFL) player Ray Rice assaulting his fiance spotlighted the problem of pro football players perpetrating domestic violence. Although Rice's actions received widespread attention (chiefly attributable to a graphic video of him dragging his unconscious fiance from an elevator), he is only one of many NFL players in the headlines for committing violence against their female partners. Although football players are arrested at lower rates than the public at large, relative to the national average they are arrested at higher rates for domestic violence.
In response, the NFL recently announced more severe sanctions against players who perpetrate domestic violence. They will now face a 6-game suspension for a first-time offense and a lifetime ban for a second offence (although this could be appealed after a 1-year suspension). Given the complexities of domestic violence, I was curious how an "offense" is defined. According to ESPN, the definition is as follows:
A league source told ESPN's Andrew Brandt that discipline would be triggered by adjudication of a player's case, such as a conviction or plea agreement....To be counted as an "offense," a player would not necessarily have to be convicted in a court of law, but each incident will be judged on its own merits.
Many domestic violence charges are eventually dropped, making the broad definition of "offense" critical to taking a meaningful stance against perpetrators of abuse. Unfortunately, an unintended side effect of the NFL sanctions may be more pressure on victims to recant their allegations in order to protect the perpetrator from these penalties (similar consequences resulted with the implementation of mandatory arrest laws when victims call 911). It is also quite common for domestic violence incidents not to be reported to law enforcement at all and thus some perpetrators will continue to evade accountability, but this is a great start.
By taking violence against women seriously, the NFL has a real opportunity to bring public awareness to the issue of domestic violence. For instance, the graph below shows Google search trends for the term NFL compared to the phrase domestic violence. Domestic violence is dwarfed by interest in the NFL, so much that domestic violence barely registers on the graph.
To get an even clearer picture, I looked at Google searches for domestic violence, Peyton Manning (the number one quarterback in football, my family members in Colorado informed me), and the Seattle Seahawks (last year's SuperBowl winners). As shown, in the last couple of years, Peyton Manning and the Seahawks garner substantially more web searches than domestic violence.
Of course, it could be argued that a larger proportion of the population are football fans than are experiencing domestic violence, which would account for the disproportionate interest. However, given that 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, most everyone knows a survivor of abuse and could theoretically be speaking out, seeking resources, finding organizations to volunteer at or donate to, or simply educating themselves.
Although the new attention to domestic violence by the NFL is a great first step, we have a long way to go. One need to look no further than the top two comments on the ESPN article announcing the NFL's revised sanctions for perpetrating domestic violence:
I applaud the NFL's efforts to lead on this front, but it will take more than this one institution to change the culture of violence against women (as evidenced by the comments above). All men who abuse women need to be held accountable for their violence. The high visibility of NFL players' violence may rest on racist imagery of Black men as criminals, rather than a widespread cultural shift in action to combat domestic violence. Calls for sanctions for other public figures who commit violence against their partners is noticeably quiet.
For now, how the NFL leads on this issue when put to the test is not yet clear. The enforcement of the policy comes with considerable discretion of the commissioner. It appears as if San Francisco 49ers Ray McDonald will be the first to test out the new penalties. Unfortunately, the NFL will likely have many chances to get it right. Some are already expressing skepticism that the new rules are substantial or will be lasting, among them Ian Crouch in The New Yorker:
Yet the N.F.L. world will move on, and sooner than we might think or hope, just as it has moved on from other incidents of off-the-field violence and tragedy. It probably already had, for the most part: fans in Baltimore cheered Rice during his first preseason game, less than two weeks after his suspension was announced. (Forgive, forget, first down!) The pressure will not always be on Goodell to act swiftly and strictly. The new rules also allow him to be selective in the way he pursues such cases and in how he issues punishments.
I am reminded of a rough season in the Seattle Mariners' history. As the first major league baseball team publicly committed to raising awareness of violence against women with its "Refuse To Abuse" campaign, the team traded for a player who was charged with committing rape. In reacting to the fallout, Nan Stoops -- Executive Director of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence -- concluded:
With Refuse To Abuse™, the Mariners agree to be held to a high standard. We applaud that. We expect them to “walk the talk” and we know they will stumble. After all, learning and changing is a slow, painful process.
I also have my doubts, but I am glad the NFL is making a first step. Of course, many questions remain. Do the sanctions shape/reshape the public discourse on domestic violence? If so, how? Who becomes characterized as a criminal/abuser and who is portrayed as making a mistake? Do other sports organizations or other public institutions increase their accountability efforts? Are the penalties effective in reducing domestic violence in the NFL or do fewer victims call for help when they need it and/or recant their allegations to shield their partners from the consequences for their career? Only time will tell.