The NFL’s Domestic Violence Problem, and Ours

Even if you’re not a football fan, you’ve likely heard the name Ray Rice this week, a Baltimore Ravens running back the NFL suspended indefinitely after TMZ posted a video documenting him violently assaulting the woman who later became his wife. In the wake of the incident, several things remain unclear: whether the NFL knew the full extent of Rice’s domestic abuse towards his wife before originally slapping him with the light punishment of a two-game suspension and why, in the NFL, testing positive for smoking marijuana has greater consequences than knocking a woman out cold. The NFL’s policy towards domestic abusers has long been too lenient, privileging the value of having players in the game over the safety of the women with whom the players interact.

But the NFL’s attitude isn’t an anomaly. It comes from our culture’s deeply-rooted conflict over domestic violence. It is the point where two firmly held beliefs come into conflict. Abusing women is wrong. But in most situations, dictating the terms that someone is allowed to conduct their own romantic relationships is equally unwelcome. Thus the discomfort, the wrenching feeling when Rice’s wife Janay speaks up to criticize not her husband, but the media and the NFL.

“No one knows the pain that the media & unwanted [opinions] from the public has caused my family,” she wrote on her Instagram account. “To take something away from the man I love that he has worked his ass off for all his life just to gain ratings is. . .horrific. THIS IS OUR LIFE! What don’t you all get.”

Her statement gets at the very fulcrum of the issue. If you’re a person who believes in gender equality, you abhor the violence perpetrated against Janay Rice, the product of a long history of gender relationships in which women are less than men, theirs to knock around and otherwise control. But you also have to abhor the way that she’s been portrayed: as weak for marrying Rice anyway, for staying with him. It is part of a culture of victim-blaming to point the finger at Janay Rice and ask why she didn’t leave. There are many arguments you could pose here, about the normalization of abuse, but the most eloquent ones are being made on social media from victims of domestic abuse. Under the hashtags #WhyIStayed and #WhyIleft, abuse victims have been talking about their own journeys from denial to breaking free. The effects of domestic violence are pernicious, and deeply psychological. The ways that women talk about their own abuse, the enforcing complexes of fear and isolation and guilt fostered by the abusers, are heartbreaking and instructional. Just a few examples:

Janay Rice’s plea does not absolve her husband of the incident in question. It only illustrates how deeply we have accepted rationalizations when it comes to violence against women.

Vice President Joe Biden addressed the matter in an absolutely on-point speech this morning on Today,It’s never, never, never the woman’s fault. No man has a right to raise a hand to a woman. No means no,” Biden said. “The one regret I have is we call it domestic violence as if it’s a domesticated cat. It is the most vicious form of violence there is, because not only the physical scars are left, the psychological scars that are left.”

Rice’s assault and the reaction to it, the possible cover-up that the NFL undertook to shield Rice from scrutiny over it is indicative of a broken system, one in which an abused woman is an acceptable piece of collateral damage. The NFL only suspended Rice under public pressure related to the release of the tape, but the altercation had been established long ago.

In August, after criticism from the public for going soft on Rice, the NFL announced that domestic violence infractions would be penalized by a six-game suspension. But is that enough? We shouldn’t have to wait for TMZ to release a video of the incident before definitive action is taken. Domestic abuse needs to be a career-extinction level offense every time. If the price that we must pay to watch football games is accepting the endangerment of women, it is too high.

(Image via The New York Times/AP)