If I were punched by an unknown man in an elevator there would be little doubt that my assailant would be prosecuted. If the trauma were enough to cause me to lose consciousness, meaning I suffered brain trauma, my attacker would likely be charged with aggravated assault. No one would be surprised if he received jail time. No one would think twice if he lost his job. However, if I were knocked unconscious by my husband or sexual partner it would not be unusual for my attacker to get a diversion, that is if he were charged at all.
This tragic reality of domestic violence has been on graphic public display with the Ray Rice case. Even though Rice’s victim, Janay Palmer who was then his girlfriend and now wife, lost consciousness from being beaten both she and Rice were charged with simple assault. When a video of Rice dragging her unconscious body became available his charges were changed from simple assault to third-degree aggravated assault. Despite the video evidence and his indictment by the grand jury the Ravens felt there was more to Ray Rice than this “one incident.” After Rice took a diversion, which if completed will leave him without a criminal record, the National Football League (NFL) issued a two game suspension. When TMZ released another video showing the actual act of violence Rice was let go by the Ravens and suspended indefinitely by the NFL. Ms. Rice has been treated cruelly by many, stated this is a private matter, and understandably feels victimized by the attention. Take away the publicity and this could be any domestic violence case.
Many talk about NFL failing to take domestic violence seriously. After all Warren Moon was never suspended for domestic violence and the violence of Jovan Belcher and Rae Carruth was somehow a complete surprise until they became murderers. And compare Rice’s two game suspension with Michael Vick’s indefinite suspension and repayment of $19 million of his signing bonus for dog fighting and gambling! It’s true, the NFL doesn’t appear to take violence against women very seriously, but how different are they from our own legal system? Rice received a diversion and Vick went to jail for 23 months. Shouldn’t battering a woman to the point of unconsciousness warrant at least the same criminal sentence as dog fighting and gambling?
That domestic violence is treated differently by the courts and the public from assault not perpetrated by a current or former sexual partner should shame every one of us. From neighbors who don’t call the police when late night pleading and screams drift from next door, to friends and co-workers who never ask about bruises, to buddies who don’t speak up when a man calls his partner “stupid” in public and are oblivious to her cringes, to police who just calm everyone down instead of making arrests, to media who release videos of a woman at her most vulnerable without thought to the repercussions, to district attorneys who offer diversions, to judges who just want to give this otherwise “good” guy a chance, and especially to everyone who has ever asked why a woman doesn’t just leave instead of why doesn’t the man stop beating?
Twenty-two percent of American women (and 14% of men) have experienced severe physical violence perpetrated by a current or previous sexual partner. Domestic violence is the single largest category of calls received by police, a staggering statistic by itself but even more so when you consider that most domestic violence assaults go unreported. Of those calls that actually result in an arrest about 60% are prosecuted, but it varies greatly by county. Even with attentive police officers and dedicated district attorneys domestic violence cases are plagued by victim recanting. While threats and socioeconomic concerns are part of the reason, sophisticated emotional manipulating by the perpetrators plays a huge role. Many women also are so enculturated to the violence that they just don’t see it as such. And then there is the shame. Each time a response to domestic violence is inadequate, either by the courts or by friends or family, we send a message that somehow the victim bears some responsibility.
Hearing that Ray Rice beat his wife should have been enough to do something. Both the Ravens and the NFL are acutely aware of head injuries and so they know the kind of force it takes to knock a person unconscious and the potential long-term repercussions. And the collective outrage that has grown from the release of the video? No one needed to see that video to be horrified. Why wasn’t domestic violence on the front pages of major publications after the assault occurred instead of after TMZ released the video? Are we so dismissive of severe domestic violence that we can’t rise up in collective disgust unless shamed into action by an image so graphic that we can’t look away?
Personally, I don’t think the NFL needs to investigate themselves because their actions were sadly predictable and simply reflective of society and many of our courts. I doubt any work would have fired an employee who received a diversion for domestic violence, because if completed a diversion means it never happened. Think what message that might send to both the victim and her assailant. At least the NFL’s new code of conduct doesn’t require a legal conviction for domestic violence, a small step in the right direction (assuming of course they enforce it). Does your business have a similar policy?
Instead of calling for an investigation of the NFL we should be turning the mirror on ourselves. What will you do the next time you suspect domestic violence? Will you ask a woman if she is safe and say that no one deserves to be hit or silently turn away? Will you dismiss what you see as a private matter or will you consider it a crime? Will you insist your police force and district attorney increase arrests and prosecutions for domestic violence? And if the NFL doesn’t enforce their new code of conduct, will you still watch the Super Bowl?
It’s not just the NFL who needs to change, we all do.