When Athletes Hit Women
Originally published in The Sports Fan Journal.
I’m a Cleveland sports fan.
But on November 2, 2016, absent of any adulation for the Cleveland Indians, I watched as the Chicago Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years. Game 7 was at times riveting, at times nerve wrecking, but there was another dynamic in the air.
Aroldis Chapman, after giving up a three-run lead in the 8th inning, got his swagger back in the 9th, closing out Jason Kipnis with a 97.4-mph fastball. He was part of a championship narrative with an underdog team; a closer, a hero, and a man who pushed his girlfriend to the ground and fired 8 shots into their garage.
Star athletes are magnetic and amiable; it’s hard not to bask in the presence of one. When fans get the opportunity to meet them, talk to them or about them, it’s undoubtedly an exhilarating experience. We love our athletes, not for their personal qualities but for their ability to make us proud to be fans with their outstanding athleticism. Put Mark Price, Ozzie Newsome, Kenny Lofton, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James or Bernie Kosar in a room and I’ll probably pass out.
But when athletes hit women, the game changes.
In the hours after an assault charge surfaces, a standard wave of fan emotion takes place. Shock, disbelief, blame, indignation, and ultimately, the call for forgiveness and a second chance. Outraged fans demand immediate accountability because we know we should say something. But that familiar call for a second chance soon comes, as if we’re even clear that this incident was the first. As Alex Reimer writes in Forbes, “Few things in this world can cover up a man’s flaws like throwing a good fastball.”
When a regular Joe on the evening news hits a woman, we yearn for retribution. When a talented athlete hits a woman, there is hope for absolution. Bethany Withers, an attorney and Harvard Law researcher, examined domestic violence in sports leagues and found that athletes are not punished as harshly or as consistently as those accused of identical crimes in the general public. She writes in the New York Times, “While there is not conclusive evidence that professional football players are more likely to commit violence against women, there is evidence that they are not punished by the league, teams or the criminal justice system as harshly or consistently as a member of the general public would be.”
So when does violence against women in athletics become intolerable? What is the last straw? Is it only when you’re convicted of murder like Rae Carruth? Or when there is video footage like Ray Rice? Do Tyreek Hill and Joe Mixon get a pass because they are young? Do the legacies of Jim Brown and Jason Kidd hold firm because they were great? Does Johnny Manziel deserve endless chances because he’s privileged? Is Ben Roethlisberger exempt because he is the first Steeler to record 40,000 passing yards?
I think it’s fair that we struggle with this. This wrestling is healthy—it means we recognize the magnitude of the issue yet understand its emotional complexity. There is a cognitive dissonance in weighing what is morally acceptable behavior and what excites us as sports fans. However, our response to athletes hitting women requires nothing less than when our family, friends or colleagues hit women. We have to find a line in the sand for both.
It’s true that everyone has a right to make a living. But does everyone have a right to make that living as a public figure? Where do we draw the line as fans? When I see fans cheering for a violent athlete, I see hundreds of thousands of people saying “it’s ok. What matters more is this win.” There should be a point when a violent athlete no longer has the privilege of the public stage. For me, that point is when extreme violence, or, repeated incidents of violence become public.
The professional punishment for violent athletes is a contested issue. Zero tolerance is dangerous for victims, say some writers. There has to be severe punishment for violent behavior, say others. ESPN writer Mina Kimes presented this dilemma to Kim Gandy, the president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, to which she responded, “”If any of us knew the answer to that, we’d have a Nobel Peace Prize.”
I also don’t have the answer for that. But what I do know is that any hint of shouldering responsibility for violence can be a trigger for more violence, whether severe punishment or not. It doesn’t take much to set off a violent person. Could be as small as a dish in the sink, or it could be as big as a job loss. So what is our end game? Do we want to save victims from the domestic strain of possible further violence, or enforce professional discipline for violent behavior?
Consider Ray McDonald, who was given a $1.5 million contract by the Chicago Bears in an effort to redeem him after a domestic violence incident. A short time later, McDonald hit again. There is a body of research that says people who commit an act of intimate partner violence once will do it again. Recidivism studies of intimate partner violence only account for post-treatment convictions, but that is not to say that abuse doesn’t occur without a conviction; we know that it does. So it is possible, even likely, that those with violence pasts who we cheer for on Sundays are still violent towards their partners at home, off-screen.
How we handle being sports fans of violent athletes is a complex issue with no easy solutions. I admittedly don’t have a clear answer. But I believe we, as sports fans, can move the conversation forward. Our societal biases and assumptions about intimate partner violence and abuser dynamics are changing. We are not so quick to blame the victim without pause and we have become more vocal when athletes hit women. We’re evolving; I can sense that, and I applaud it.
One way to keep moving forward as fans is to free ourselves of the belief that we cannot breathe “greatness” and “guilt” in the same sentence. Your favorite athlete can be both an amazing talent and a violent partner or a sexual predator. Give yourself permission to acknowledge both, knowing it doesn’t call your fandom into question. The internal struggle comes in attempting to choose a side.
Second, keep talking about incidents of violence in sports until there is a resolution to each case. Once the immediate publicity surrounding an incident of violence fades, let’s not step back into silence until another incident makes news. Read and write updates about open cases. Advocate publicly for victims of violence. And let’s make accountability a requirement for our support.