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.
How we talk about domestic violence matters because it frames how we think about it as a social problem and in turn, how we create solutions. Reporting of celebrity domestic violence is an excellent place to start in changing this conversation.
Today's example is brought to us by CBSNews who reported that actor Michael Jace murdered April Jace, his wife, yesterday. Below are my suggested corrections.
Every October is both Domestic Violence Awareness Month and Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The simultaneous events mean that domestic violence (DV) victims' advocates spend the month trying to compete with the "Go Pink" commercialization of breast cancer activism. The charts below, show that DV advocates aren't imagining the significant hurdle they must climb to reach public consciousness. According to Google Trends, the number of searches on breast cancer far surpasses google searches for domestic violence (see graph below).
Yet, to put the challenge of generating DV awareness in greater context, interest in Chris Brown is much greater than either women's health issue (as measured by google searches- see graph). Domestic violence barely even registers and breast cancer only seems to get a bump in attention during October. It's really not surprising that DV activists latched on to Chris Brown perpetrating domestic violence as an attempt to create some awareness.
Follow #DVAM on Twitter this month for more information about DV and how you can do your part to raise awareness.
Recently, celebrities have been making major news headlines for perpetrating domestic violence: NFL player Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend and then committed suicide, Olympian Oscar Pistorius murdered his girlfriend, and Charles Saatchi was photographed strangling his wife, celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, to name a few. However celebrity domestic violence headlines are nothing new. Images of Bobby Brown assaulting Whitney Houston, as well as OJ Simpson’s trial for the murder of Nicole Brown, are often noted when the subject of celebrity domestic violence arises.
Celebrity domestic violence is not only not new, but seems to be on the rise. In 2009, the year singer Chris Brown assaulted pop-star Rhianna, 18 celebrity couples made headlines because of involvement in domestic violence. In 2012, the number climbed to 31 couples. By the end of July in 2013, 17 couples had already been reported to be engaged in abusive and violent relationships (perpetrating and/or surviving). In total, I identified 118 celebrity couples between January 2009 and July 2013.
I identified couples by using the search term “domestic violence” on 3 top entertainment websites and 3 popular sports news websites. Given that many news articles fail to label domestic violence as such, this is likely an under-count. I also limited the sample to those couples in which legal involvement (an arrest, petition for order of protection, reports detailed in divorce papers, etc.) was present (thus Elin Nordegren, Tiger Wood’s ex-wife, is not included). Additionally, I identified celebrities as television and movie actors, reality television stars, and musicians, and sports figures were categorized as professional sports players (no college football players were counted).
Today I’m publishing a PHOTO GALLERY of celebrities and sports figures who have made headlines for perpetrating domestic violence. While the nature of the photo gallery gives the appearance of a clear divide between who perpetrates domestic violence and who survives abuse, the reality is much messier. A good example of this is actress Lisa Robin Kelly, known for her role on the television sitcom That 70s Show. As illustrated by this TMZ article, initial reports identified her as the perpetrator of abuse. However, looking not at a one-time incident, but the relationship over time, it’s easy to see that things were more complicated than an initial arrest. The descriptions of abuse Lisa describes enduring from her husband provide a much clearer picture of a pattern of power and control executed by her husband over her:
According to Lisa, the argument started because Gilliam wanted her to empty her bank account and give him her money. She refused, and claims Gilliam attacked her, pulling her hair, throwing her to the ground, and choking her. She says he even threatened to shoot her. (TMZ)
When looking at the celebrity domestic violence photo gallery, it’s important to be clear about what it shows and what it does not. It shows who has been arrested for perpetrating domestic violence, not necessarily who is the abusive individual in the relationship. An excellent primer on the differences between labeling someone a perpetrator vs. an abuser and a victim vs. a survivor is available via the Northwest Network of Bisexual, Trans, Lesbian & Gay Survivors of Abuse. It's possible to be a perpetrator of a crime and a survivor of abuse simultaneously.
In addition to the photo gallery, I’m including some basic demographic information about the perpetrators in my sample (I’m using the “perpetrator” definition and not “abuser” definition here). The statistics are taken from 110 individuals identified as celebrities who have perpetrated domestic violence. Eight couples were excluded because either the celebrity in question was the victim or there was no clear perpetrator in the relationship (i.e., mutual arrests). These couples still appear in the photo gallery. Almost 50% of the perpetrators were between the ages of 25 and 34. 90% were men, 96% were in heterosexual relationships, and 63% were dating their partner at the time.
Why does Celebrity Domestic Violence Matter?
We are bombarded daily with information about how relationships are supposed to be. Representations of relationship norms, expectations, and ideals are often depicted in reporting of celebrities’ lives (Kate Middleton, anyone?). Intimate partner violence is pervasive in our society and how it is framed influences what we believe about domestic violence, what causes it, and how we can solve it as a society.
As a sociology PhD student, my current research is a content analysis of online coverage of celebrities and sports figures making headlines for perpetrating domestic violence. As part of my research I am analyzing the framing of domestic violence, gender, and race. How does race and status influence reporting on violent relationships? What are the messages about masculinity and femininity embedded in our conversations about this social problem? By changing the way we report on these relationships, can we create social change?
Related Blog Post:
A message to the media on reporting on Domestic Violence
Less of This:
A wife of a former baseball pitcher attempted to rob her estranged husband at gunpoint this week. While this story should certainly be covered, it should not be covered like this: "The curvy wife of form Mets pitcher Kris Benson...." or this "She is now cooling her high heels in an Atlanta-area jail...." Domestic violence is not a trivial matter and should be reported in a way that conveys the seriousness of Anna Benson's crime. Objectifying and demeaning her is unnecessary, unprofessional, and sexist.
This coverage of this incident also brought to my attention the reality television show Baseball Wives on VH1 (2011-2012). I was appalled in January when I stumbled on the website www.athleteswives.com. It turns out that people have been interested in athletes’ wives for a while now. According to Google Trends, Google searches for the phrase really became popular around 2007. I'm not sure what prompted the spike in interest in January 2006, but my guess is The Real Housewives of Orange County reality show, since it was announced that month. (Getting a jump start on American interest in the topic, a British television drama called Footballers' Wives aired from 2002-2006.)
So, who are these people Googling athletes wives? Well, apparently they are people from Pennsylvania, Illinois, New York, California, Texas, and Florida. But why those states? Two of the players’ wives featured on Baseball Wives were from Illinois and New York, but the rest do not match as an explanation. There are likely other reasons, perhaps linked to more local or regional sports-related stories such as coverage of Joe Paterno in Pennsylvania.
Coincidentally, this week controversy erupted when a BBC broadcaster critiqued the appearance of Marion Bartoli, the winner of this year’s Wimbledon women's singles title.
“Do you think Bartoli’s dad told her when she was little, ‘You’re never going to be a looker? You’ll never be a Sharapova, so you have to be scrappy and fight.’”
While this overtly sexist statement is appalling, it's not surprising. It is quite common for male sportscasters to spend time conversing about women's looks. Back in January of this year, an ESPN broadcaster announced, "Well, I tell you, you quarterbacks, you get all the good-looking women! What a beautiful woman!", while the camera panned to the girlfriend of a quarterback during a college bowl game.
More of That:
Fortunately, there has been some pushback to this sexism. Both the ESPN and BBC broadcasters apologized for their commentary due to the outraged response from their audience. Fans shouldn’t have to tell the sportscasters that objectifying women is wrong, but it is heartening to see a response from the public that these actions will not be tolerated.
Also this month, former baseball player Milton Bradley was finally sentenced to three years in prison for perpetrating domestic violence. He's been arrested for domestic violence multiple times for threatening to kill his wife on multiple occasions, swinging a baseball bat at her, strangling her, and threatening her with a knife, among other things. Despite shocking and appalling statements from Bradley's attorney, in addition to Bradley's own minimization and denial, he was found guilty of: four counts of spousal battery, two counts of criminal threats, and one count each of assault with a deadly weapon, vandalism and brandishing a deadly weapon.
Unfortunately, jail will likely only bring a temporary reprieve from Bradley’s abusive actions. Despite my mixed feelings about incarceration as the answer to domestic violence, his sentence at least brought some accountability and a message that his behavior is not tolerated.
Furthermore, one of my favorite organizations, the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence (WSCADV), hosted a “Refuse to Abuse” fundraising event with my favorite baseball team, the Seattle Mariners. The Refuse to Abuse 5k fundraising walk/run will take place at the Mariners’ stadium and supports WSCADV’s work. Unlike the images on www.athleteswives.com, the Mariners and their significant others played an active role in getting the message out about healthy relationships. The players' wives took to Twitter to share their photos from the event. We definitely need more of that.