The National Football League’s Baltimore Ravens’ running back, Ray Rice, has been indefinitely suspended from the NFL, and then cut by his team as of Sept. 8 due to a February domestic violence incident involving his then fiancee Janay Palmer.
In May, a surveillance video was publicly released showing Rice dragging an unconscious Palmer out of an elevator at a casino in Atlantic City, N.J. The video prompted a national debate about the need for immediate action against Rice.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell waited until July to arbitrarily suspend Rice from playing in the 2014 NFL season’s first two games. Goodell’s actions were viewed as a slap on the wrist. Before this videotape surfaced, there were no NFL guidelines for suspending players involved in domestic violence assaults, while a drug offense policy is part of the collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association.
Following their wedding, Ray Rice and Janay Rice held a May 23 press conference about the incident. A somber-looking Janay Rice stated, “I deeply regret the role I played in the incident.” Women asked why she apologized. Ray Rice did not publicly apologize to his spouse, but apologized to Ravens’ and NFL officials; this caused more public outrage. (sportsgrid.com) The Ravens endlessly retweeted Janay Palmer’s apology until Sept. 8.
What led to Ray Rice’s suspension was TMZ’s release of more video of the assault inside the elevator; it showed Ray Rice punching his fiancee so hard that her head hit a railing. He then dragged her out of the elevator. Once this video went viral on Sept. 8, it intensified the discussion on the nature of U.S. sports, domestic violence and women’s oppression.
Football and domestic violence
Football is the most violent sport in the U.S. — whether high school, college or, particularly, professional. In recent years, the number of concussions has exploded in pro football. Some retired football players have even committed suicide so their brains could be donated to science to study the impact of thousands of brute force injuries to their heads. The NFL has the shortest playing span of any professional sport due to devastating injuries, which often lead to a lifetime of physical and emotional disabilities.
This kind of violence affects the personal lives of football players, their partners and children. Numerous incidents have been reported of domestic violence involving NFL players. What made the episode involving Ray Rice stand out was that it was caught on a video security camera in a public place. The majority of domestic violence incidents take place behind closed doors; many assaults go unreported or the assaulted women refuse to press charges for economic and other reasons.
Following his July conviction for assaulting his partner, Carolina Panther defensive end Greg Hardy played in a game on Sept. 7. San Francisco 49ers player Ray McDonald also played that weekend, following his arrest for battering his pregnant fiancee, even after she informed police.
In December 2012, NFL player Jovan Becher fatally shot Kasandra Perkins, his partner and mother of his child, following an argument. He then committed suicide.
Dave Zirin, who writes the progressive “Edge of Sports” column for The Nation, told Democracy Now! on Sept. 9, “This is about a National Football League that treats violence against women as a public relations crisis, not as a crisis about the ways in which the violence of the game spills over into people’s families.”
Some sports writers and commentators, including Zirin, are calling for Goodell’s resignation for promoting this anti-woman culture. More domestic violence attacks occur during the Super Bowl than on any other day in the U.S.
Women are used as sexual objects to attract high-profile high school athletes to Division I National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball and football programs. Many recruits feel they must comply with this sexualized atmosphere to pay their college tuition or other expenses. An epidemic of sexual assaults by athletes and other male students permeates college campuses.
Coaches are not immune from misogynist behavior. Joe Paterno, the late Penn State football coach, who was accused of concealing facts in the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse case, stated after he lost a game in 1990, “I’m going to go home and beat my wife.” (Sports Illustrated, June 27, 1994) His comments did not create controversy.
How racism and sexism intersect
The mainstream media should also be indicted for using the Ray Rice case to reinforce racism and women’s oppression. Not since the O.J. Simpson trial in 1994 has a high-profile Black athlete been made the poster person for domestic violence as has Ray Rice.
Ben Roethlisberger, the white Pittsburgh Steelers’ quarterback, was accused of sexual assault twice at a Lake Tahoe hotel in 2008. The NFL slapped him with a six-game suspension. He never faced a jury trial because the district attorney claimed there wasn’t enough “evidence.” It was Roethlisberger’s word versus that of a 20-year-old woman whose own character would have been scrutinized. Where was the media attention about this scandal?
Retired Major League Baseball player Chuck Knoblaugh, who is also white, has been arrested for domestic violence. The billionaire white owner of the Dallas Cowboys, Jerry Jones, is being sued for a 2009 sexual assault of a young woman. Where is the hoopla about these cases? Must crimes be videotaped to bring national headlines and not just blips on a screen?
Four white Lacrosse players at Duke University were exonerated from sexual assault charges against a Black single mother. They were portrayed as innocent victims; she was portrayed as promiscuous.
Eight Black women have accused white police officer Daniel Holtzclaw in Oklahoma of raping them after he arrested them. A judge reduced the bail for this serial rapist, setting him free. Where is the public outcry?
Despite the multimillion-dollar contracts of athletes like Ray Rice, he is still an African-American man who is subject to the same racist stereotypes under capitalism. Columnist Charles M. Blow stated in the Sept. 7 New York Times, citing a Sentencing Project report: “Many media outlets reinforce the public’s racial misconceptions about crime by presenting African Americans and Latinos differently than whites — both quantitatively and qualitatively. Television news programs and newspapers over-represent racial minorities as crime suspects and whites as crime victims.”
While African-American youth, including Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, are executed in the streets, athletes of color like Ray Rice are demonized and criminalized by a system rooted in white supremacy, women’s oppression and homophobia.
Violence rooted in women’s oppression
Domestic violence is part of women’s oppression; women are viewed as men’s private property. It is the oldest of oppressions, along with slavery and the oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.
In a Sept. 12 email to supporters, Maine Rep. Diane Russell states, “One in four American women experiences physical violence from an intimate partner, and every month 46 women are killed by an intimate partner with a gun.”
The National Domestic Violence Hotline says that one in five women in the U.S. has been raped; more than 9 percent of women have been raped by an intimate partner.
The National Coalition on Domestic Violence’s website highlights a U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention statistic: “Approximately 42.4 million women in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.”
The “Police Domestic Violence” handbook says women suffer domestic violence in 40 percent of police-officer families, double the rate of nonpolice families. Author Diane Wetendorf says, “The biggest problem for a woman reporting that she’s been abused by her police officer husband or boyfriend is that nobody believes you. If you do speak up, the police are very good at turning the accusations around. The women get terrified, too, so the crime is very under-reported. There is a legitimate fear of retaliation.” (San Francisco Gate, Sept. 14)
This is true for many women who report their abuse to authorities. The repressive state and media treat them as criminals and the abusers as the victims. Marissa Alexander, a heroic African-American woman, spent almost three years in prison for defending herself and her children from an abusive spouse. Released on bail earlier this year due to mass pressure, she will be retried in December in Jacksonville, Fla.
Then there are women like Janay Rice who blame themselves for their abuse. No women should feel blame, guilt or shame due to women’s oppression. The repeated showing of the videotape of Janay Rice’s horrific beating reinforces the nightmare that brings about humiliation and shame. She had no control over the assault or the video of the attack. The video should not be shown out of respect for her and other women who have had similar experiences.
Janay Rice said on Instagram on Sept. 9, “No one knows the pain that the media and unwanted [opinions] from the public [have] caused my family. To make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret every day is a horrible thing. To take something away from the man I love that 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. If your intentions were to hurt us, embarrass us, make us feel alone, take all happiness away, you succeeded on so many levels.”
Janay Rice’s devastating feelings should not be experienced by any woman, yet many women must endure them. The blame lies with the NFL hierarchy, big business media and society’s pervasive views that victimize women in a capitalist culture that puts profits before the dignity and needs of humanity.