When athletes make hits off the field, we can’t be silent

In the last two weeks, domestic violence dominated sports headlines.

Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was suspended for the first two games of this season for dragging his unconscious fiancée from an elevator, or technically, “violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy following his off-season arrest for domestic violence.”  After a barrage of media attention, five months after the incident, Rice apologized to his wife in a news conference today. He said all the right things, taking responsibility for his actions, making no excuses, and promising to be a better husband, a better father, and a better role model in the future. That’s good.  But the game winner is when we see his actions match his words.

TCU, UT and OU also encountered situations where players face charges of domestic/dating violence.  Carolina Panther’s pro bowl defensive end Greg Hardy joined this illustrious group as well.

As I watched news coverage repeat itself with different names and uniforms, I was struck by the sense of entitlement, lack of guilt or even remorse expressed by the offenders.  Further, they often received support and justification rather than indictment from their associated institutions.

Ravens head coach John Harbaugh took a “stand by your man” approach in an interview with ESPN:

“It’s not a big deal. It’s just part of the process. We said from the beginning that the circumstances would determine the consequences.. . . I stand behind Ray. He’s a heck of a guy. He’s done everything right since. He makes a mistake. He’s going to have to pay a consequence.”

What does that mean, John?  It’s a mistake to hit your girlfriend and drag her out of an elevator?  Or, was the mistake getting caught on camera?  I actually call that a crime, an assault — and the consequences don’t logically match the “mistake.”

Follow this with Adolpho Birch, the NFL’s vice president for labor policy and government affairs, who attempted to justify the NFL’s suspension by saying if Rice wasn’t an NFL player he wouldn’t have received any punishment at all and, “It is multiple games and hundreds of thousands of dollars.”  Does hundreds of thousands of dollars restore the victim’s dignity?  Or, does it just lead to Rice blaming his victim for loss of income?  This comes perilously close to blaming the victim for the attack which caused her injuries, which ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith unbelievably did during one of his rants. ESPN suspended Smith for a week for his comments.

And, don’t miss  Carolina Panther defensive end Greg Hardy’s ‘apology’– to his team , not his victim, where he said he was sorry that his legal troubles have been a distraction to his team.  He omitted expressing any remorse for throwing his then girlfriend onto a futon covered in guns and threatening to kill her, for which he was arrested and convicted. Instead, Hardy said, “I love the ownership (and) my teammates.”  I hope he doesn’t show them the same love he extended to his ex-girlfriend.

Closer to home, we watched the story of TCUdefensive end Devonte Fields unfold after punching his ex-girlfriend in the head and threatening “I should blast you!” He was arrested late last week.  TCU head coach Gary Patterson was quoted in a July 23 Star Telegram story as saying, “My job is to protect the university,… So we’ll see how the investigation goes, and then we’ll find out what they have to say.”  Disappointingly, Coach Patterson did not say, “I’m disturbed by this player’s actions”  or “Violence against women is wrong” or “At TCU, our football program expects players to demonstrate respect for women.”

In a society where athletes are not only respected, but revered, shouldn’t we expect coaches and institutions that support athletes to stand up and speak out against domestic violence?

Evidently, UT Football Head Coach Charlie Strong thinks so.  After two Texas wide receivers were arrested for sexual assault, a July 24 Austin American-Statesman article quoted Coach Strong:

“It’s been made clear to everyone on our team that treating women with respect is one of our core values, and I’m extremely disappointed that two young men in our program have been accused of not doing that. With the recent charges against them, they have been suspended indefinitely from our football team and will no longer participate in any team functions.”

Because respecting women is one of the UT football program’s core values, it allows Coach Strong to dialogue with players about expectations regarding treatment of women and, more importantly, allows him to take a stand when those expectations are violated.

It is true that some of these women refused to press charges.  That doesn’t mean the abuse isn’t real.  Victims often refuse to press charges because of fear  — fear of retaliation, fear of blame, blinding fear of knowing what her abuser is capable of.   Since domestic violence is a crime, the victim shouldn’t have to make that decision — that should be the decision of the criminal justice system.

Since one in four women will be injured by her boyfriend, date or husband in her lifetime, that means for every dozen women sitting  in the stands on game day,  three have been or will be abused by someone who professed to care about them.  Further, one-third of female homicide victims die at the hands of a current or former partner.   These violent incidents some choose to minimize can escalate to homicide as the abuser reaches for the ultimate control of “his woman” (read “property”).

We don’t end domestic violence by justifying the abuser’s actions, calling him a good guy who messed up or trying to convince ourselves he was motivated by love.  Victims wish abuse was a case of a one-time mistake, but know this wasn’t the first time — it was just the time he got caught.  And, we’re really fooling ourselves if we believe violence that results in serious injuries and terrifying threats can be characterized by any rational person as “love.”

We end domestic violence by providing safety for victims and accountability for offenders.  We end it by expecting people who have a voice in our communities, such as elected officials, coaches, and yes — athletes, to make it their priority to speak out against any type of violence against women.  And, as a society, we hold everyone, even our favorite players, accountable for their actions and attitudes towards women.

Mary Lee Hafley signature



Mary Lee Hafley
CEO, SafeHaven of Tarrant County

Help is available.   If  you or someone you know is being abused, contact SafeHaven of Tarrant County’s 24-Hour Hotline toll free at 1-877-701-SAFE(7233) or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).

If you need information or training, contact SafeHaven at (817) 535-6462.  Visit our website for additional resources, www.safehaventc.org.