Is our mass desensitization to domestic and sexual violence in sports the new normal?
“You know what’s interesting?” my cousin asks over a basket of nachos at our favorite Mexican restaurant.
“I’ve been thinking about all the athletes accused of domestic violence,” he says. It’s September 2014 and the second Ray Rice video—the one of him punching and knocking out Janay Palmer—has just been publicly released. “These guys love to look back and talk about the ‘adversity’ they overcame.” He shakes his head. “Are we really supposed to congratulate them on overcoming ‘adversity’ that they created themselves?”
Because life is all about synchronicity, my cousin and I are at a place I’ve written about before: Patron Mexican Grill, the site of the assault that suspended Cedrick Wilson from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
If you’re a female fan of American football, you probably felt a certain amount of sexism fatigue last season, brought on by the footage of Ray Rice dragging his then-fiancé out of an elevator and followed by the NFL’s frantic attempt at image protection (which included this classy tweet from the Ravens apologizing on Palmer’s behalf). The second video that led to the termination of Rice’s contract surfaced just weeks after I wrote a Salon piece on NFL boycotts, and that might have been the end of the story had Rice not filed a grievance, won $1.5 million this past March, and been granted permission to play again.
This spring, it seems, we’re preparing for another year of the same. Last weekend, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Florida State quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston despite allegations of rape. And on the night of May 2, the Internet cheered Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s boxing triumph in “The Fight of the Century,” while his extensive history of domestic violence was scarcely mentioned.
Clearly, our boys deserve better heroes.
But America loves nothing so much an underdog story with a happy ending, even if, as my cousin mentioned, the difficulties these men face are of their own doing. In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Rice described his act of violence as “a battle I’m going to have to face for the rest of my life.” He additionally noted that he is “optimistic that I’ll get a second chance.”
A few months after my visit to Patron, a friend told me that he thought Ray Rice deserved to play ball again because “America is the land of second chances.” In tandem with the adversity narrative, our ideology insists that if you stumble and fall while conquering whatever challenge you’re after, it’s OK—so long as you learn from the experience and resolve to do better next time. The problem, however, is that this logic isn’t applicable to domestic abuse. And the sooner we understand that, the more of our admiration we can save for those worthy of it.
After last year’s United States vs. Castleman ruling, which now prohibits anyone convincted of domestic violence from owning a firearm, Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor deemed domestic violence a “term of art encompassing acts that one might not characterize as ‘violent’ in a non-domestic context.” Justice Sotomayor’s characterization reflects abuse as more of an escalating pattern or series than a single isolated incident. This is why, even supposing that Ray Rice’s plea for a second chance means that there was only a first assault (though a crash course in body language will tell you this likely isn’t the case), more incidents to follow are statistically favorable.
The recidivism rate for domestic violence cases is high enough among perpetrators who aren’t earning $105 million a year. Factor in fortune and fame, and you have an instant recipe for disaster. The day before “The Fight of the Century,” CNN commentator Raul A. Reyes condemned the complete lack of outcry over Mayweather Jr.’s serial violence: The boxer has been charged with seven assaults against five different women over the years. “The fact that [Mayweather Jr.] uses these same fists to beat women does not seem to matter to CBS…the MGM Grand, the Las Vegas gaming industry, or the sponsors associated with Saturday’s fight. If any of them have made a public statement about his domestic abuse,” Reyes writes, “I have not been able to find it anywhere online.”
The futility of giving athletes multiple “chances” stems from abuse being an issue of deep-seated beliefs, not of psychological unrest or a hot-headed nature. Abusers justify their actions based on their value systems, which are molded by learned behavior in the home and/or broader misogynistic cultural norms. Lundy Bancroft, a counselor who has worked with abusive men (including two professional athletes) for over 20 years, outlines several realities of the abusive mindset in his book Why Does He Do That. I believe that the most important of them in this context are:
- He strives to have a good public image.
- He disrespects his partner and considers himself superior to her.
- He feels entitled.
These three tenants of abusive thinking fit exceptionally well into professional athletes’ lifestyles. “Most men put on a charming face for their communities,” Bancroft writes, “creating a sharp split between their public image and their private treatment of women and children.” Disrespect toward women is a familiar part of athletic activities: “Locker room talk” didn’t get its name by accident, and male athletes learn to insult each other with phrases like “throw like a girl” from the time they are children. In a space where women are relegated to ornamental positions on the sidelines and harassed for their reporting, it is no surprise that their fear, distress, and injury register as little more than a distraction or inconvenience.
And finally, entitlement. According to Bancroft, this is “the abuser’s belief that he has a special status…that provides him with exclusive rights and privileges that do not apply to his partner.” One of these privileges is “freedom from accountability,” which “means that the abusive man considers himself above criticism.” Jocular attitudes of entitlement appear in everything from teachers and instructors being criticized for failing prima donna college athletes (not that I speak from experience), to students threatening to kill rape victims, to the increased likelihood of college athletes to perpetrate gang rape.
As my media feeds sparkle with praise for an alleged rapist quarterback and an infamously violent boxer, I have to wonder if our mass desensitization to sexual violence in sports is the new normal. When Ray Rice and Jameis Winston mess up for the first time, they return to their lives of wealth and influence after a slap on the wrist and a tentative vow to do better. But further down the line, after multiple infractions, the promised “punishment” never arrives.
The end result? Men like Floyd Mayweather Jr., who never show remorse because they’ve never had to. It seems that no one, regardless of how many second chances they’re given, has learned a damn thing.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.