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.
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.
What is illustrative about this incident is the messiness of what happened. Whether Greinke initially hit Quentin with the ball is partially unclear, although most analyses point to it being unintentional. (Greinke’s stance in the batter’s box is such that he’s one of the most frequently hit players in baseball. Also, it’s very unlikely for a pitcher to intentionally throw at a batter on a 3-2 count in a 1-run game.) What’s messy is that Quentin initially started walking towards first base when Greinke said something (it’s unclear what exactly he said) and then Quentin charged him. Also, much has been made of the fact that Greinke put his shoulder down to hold his ground as Quentin rushed him. Much like survivors of domestic violence, Greinke isn’t shown as the perfectly innocent victim in the incident, and thus, focus has moved away from the perpetrator of the violence and onto the person injured. It’s a real word example of how expectations of a clear contrast between who is a victim and who is a perpetrator are often unrealistic.
Excusing bad behavior
The commentary after the brawl has been very similar to the troubling reactions generally offered to make sense of domestic violence events. Much of the public reaction has accepted the premise that Greinke did not plan to hit Quentin, but commentators continue to blame Greinke for saying something to Quentin that “caused” him to react the way he did, which to be clear, was to BREAK GREINKE’s COLLARBONE. This same type of excuse for unacceptable behavior is attached to incidents of domestic violence, too. While we might not argue over what horrific act an abuser committed against his partner, the media and public speculate anyway about what she did to trigger his intolerable behavior. Quentin himself, much like men who abuse their romantic partners, also offered an excuse that blamed Greinke for his own broken collarbone.
"Like I said, there is a history there, which is the reason I reacted like I did. Who knows what happens if he doesn't say anything or if he motions that it wasn't intentional?" Quentin said afterwards.
Quentin repeatedly suggests that being hit with the ball by Greinke was the final “trigger” that caused him to act like he did, even though it’s unlikely there really was any animosity between the two players before the game. Even if there was history between the players, it is NO JUSTIFICATION for harming someone. If Greinke really was purposefully aiming for Quentin, there are already sanctions in place in the game for this inappropriate behavior.
Even my beloved Seattle Mariners’ TV announcers spent time the next day recapping the event and concluded that Greinke shouldn’t have said anything, but spent no time at all questioning whether Quentin should have charged the mound and broken another player’s collarbone. The same thing happens when trying to make sense of domestic violence. So much time is spent on what the victim did or didn’t do, and hardly anyone speculates about why some men are abusive, aggressive, and physically harm others.
Many chalked Quentin’s choice to charge Greinke up to an emotional reaction, as if his paranoia of Greinke hitting him on purpose was justification for his actions. For instance, reporters pointed out that Quentin broke his wrist in 2008 after smashing his hand against his own bat in reaction to striking out. The picture they painted was one of someone who just doesn’t have impulse control. Quentin may very well need help with anger and impulse control, but it should not be used as a response to explain away someone’s bad behavior. One of my favorite Batterer Intervention Program (BIP) specialists, Mark Adams, always tells this story of asking men in his BIP how drunk they would have to be to French kiss their grandmothers. All of them always say it doesn’t matter how drunk they were, they wouldn’t do it. This is Adams’ way of making the point that there is ALWAYS a choice for our behavior, no matter how emotional (or in Adams’ example, drunk) someone might be.
Victim-blaming is pervasive in baseball & domestic violence
Sports Illustrated posited that Greinke was suffering the consequences (a broken collarbone and missing 6 weeks of games) because “he didn’t back down.” To be fair, the article spends a fair amount of time putting the blame on Quentin, but Sports Illustrated can’t help but question Greinke’s role as somehow inviting the batter to pummel him:
“Greinke could have thrown up his hands in the international symbol of, ‘Hey, I wasn't trying to hit you.’ Instead, Greinke seemed to bark nothing more than one or two words at Quentin. Only then did Quentin charge the mound.”
I don’t know about you, but I feel fairly justified in thinking that I can say whatever I want, no matter how offensive, and have the expectation that someone won’t charge me and break my collarbone. Survivors of domestic violence also face this unreasonable scrutiny and blame for their actions when seeking support. The Padres manager and CEO also jumped on the victim-blaming train and offered this to season-ticket holders:
"Zack Greinke is a different kind of guy. Anybody seen Rain Man? He's a very smart guy. He has social anxiety disorder. He doesn't interact well with his team; he doesn't have meals with his teammates. He spends his life studying how to get hitters out.... This is my opinion, and I can't say this publicly, although I guess this is public, so please don't tweet it out. We're in the trust tree here, in the nest. He hit him on purpose, that's what I believe. And then the next thing is, I don't know about you guys, but I'm 6'3", 225. If Carlos Quentin was running at me, I would not put my shoulder down."
Again, the parallels to what happens to domestic violence survivors is striking. It is more common than it should be for people to speculate and downright make up potential mental health diagnoses for victims of domestic violence. This is not only perpetuating the harm to the victim, but it aligns society with the abuser and obscures his reprehensible behavior.
Consequences most severe for the victim
Also, like the outcomes of domestic violence, the lasting consequences to the incident impact the victim more than the perpetrator of the violence. In this baseball brawl example, Quentin will be barred from playing in 8 games while Greinke will be unable to pitch for at least 6 weeks. While some public reaction called for stronger disciplinary action for batters who charge the pitcher, the precedent for significant consequences is nonexistent. As long as the responsibility for rushing the mound continues to be minimized, it’s unlikely that there will be a change in the rules. Similarly, the consequences for survivors of abuse are usually much more severe and longer lasting than any sanctions faced by their perpetrators. The impact of abuse on survivors’ lives is seemingly endless (missed work, isolation, decreased self-esteem, physical injuries, PTSD-anxiety-depression, loss of a job, need to move, evictions, judgment by friends and family, etc.) while perpetrators of abuse rarely face consequences and when they do, they are often minimal.
If Quentin truly thinks that the disincentives to (repeatedly) hitting a batter are not sufficient as they currently stand, maybe he could spend sometime lobbying MLB for a change in the consequences. However, given that Quentin said after the brawl, “It's a man's game,'' I have a hard time believing he really is concerned about the rules and was mostly just looking for a justification for his appalling behavior. In sports and in relationships, we need to stop defending, tolerating, and justifying men’s violent behavior.
I've been thinking about weighing in on the recent news that Oscar Pistorius murdered Reeva Steenkamp (the two were dating at the time). After all, my current research focuses on this exact topic. However, the analysis is complex, complicated by the story literally unfolding to the public by the hour. Adding insight into an already complicated story seems almost impossible; I don't have any more information about what transpired that night than the rest of the public does.
And yet, I do. I know that the likelihood that Pistorius killed Steenkamp as part of a relationship containing issues of power and control is highly likely. I know that it is a big red flag of an abusive relationship when I read that the police have been to his house on numerous prior occasions and that it indicates the previous violence was serious and escalating (it's hard to tell from the news reports if the prior police response was related to Pistorius' violence against Steenkamp or a prior girlfriend). I know that men obsessed with guns and with a history of abuse are incredibly dangerous. I know that women often flee to the bathroom for safety (ironically one of the most dangerous rooms in a house to take refuge since there is no alternative exit.) I know that almost exclusively, men who harm their partners will deny they did it or that it was intentional. I know when you interview family members of perpetrators of abuse, they overwhelmingly defend their son. I know that the friends and loved ones of perpetrators often never see warning signs of the abusive behavior, because, after all, the heart of abuse is control, and isolation is a powerful tool in that end game. (In fact, if you talk to survivors of domestic violence, most of them will tell you that to the outside world, their abusive partner appears "charming".) What else are you expecting family members to say other than they are shocked and in disbelief when they are grieving and coming to terms with the reality of the atrocious behavior their son, brother, friend committed?
Some may argue that Pistorius is innocent until proven guilty, that it would be irresponsible journalism to assume he intentionally killed Reeva Steenkamp. Yet, the mass media is not assuming an unbiased stance, they're providing him an alibi and worse yet, framing the conversation away from the epidemic of violence against women. This reprehensible "journalism" sends a message to women every where that violence against them, no matter how brutal, will not be taken seriously. Need to maintain he's innocent until proven guilty? Fine. Put "allegedly" in your sentence before describing the heinous acts Pistorius committed rather than endlessly repeating an unsubstantiated self-defense claim.
Regardless of the assumptions one makes about what happened at their house, now is NOT the time to glorify and rehash Pistorius' accomplishments or his hardships in life. If it feels more settling for journalists to wait until Pistorius has had his day in court to talk about domestic violence, at least be silent on the issue of Pistorius' character until then and stop with the alternative explanations. Sympathizing with the perpetrator only makes you complicit with the violence. In the meantime, appropriate grieving for a woman killed too young, with much spirit and energy to offer the world, could fill in your "24-hour news cycle" vacuum. But, don't forget to come back to reporting on violence against women. Because failing to do so means Reeva Steenkamp died in vain.
Contextualizing this tragedy is important. In depth reporting is important. Only providing one explanation (i.e. the outrageous amount of gun violence in South Africa) is misleading. If it's okay to report the context of the location of this murder, I don't see how one could justify not situating this murder within the context of men's violence against women. I have read many news reports which included statistics about the homicide rate in South Africa and so far zero articles with data on the number of domestic violence homicides.
One of the most striking findings thus far in my own research of online coverage of celebrities and sports figures making headlines for involvement in domestic violence is that virtually no one seeks a domestic violence expert as a source for the reporting. Police, the perpetrator, the perpetrator's lawyer and public relations team, and occasionally the victim are cited. At best this is lazy investigative reporting. And so, here are my tips for reporting on domestic violence homicides:
1. Call it what it is. Label it "Domestic Violence", "murder", "homicide."
2. Do not interview the family, friends, or lawyer of the perpetrator for information.
3. Seek appropriate sources. Get in touch with an expert on domestic violence. They aren't hard to find. I'm sure you have Google.
4. Remember someone was killed. If it was you, or your family member, how would you want your life portrayed?
See more tips here.