It all changed with Ray Rice.
Ray Rice was the running back for the Baltimore Ravens. In 2014, he was caught on tape in an Atlantic City casino elevator serving a violent blow to his then-fiancée’s face, knocking her unconscious, after which he stepped over her and dragged her motionless body out of the elevator. In July of the same year, the NFL punished Rice with a two-game suspension. When, in September, TMZ released the footage that showed the violent attack against Janay Palmer, the public outcry was so large that within hours, Rice was cut from the Ravens and suspended from the league indefinitely.
In the past, the major professional sports leagues have remained suspiciously silent on the matter of domestic violence. While they provided rules and subsequent punishment for inappropriate off-field behavior such as gambling, drinking and driving, and drug use, there hadn’t been a personal conduct policy regarding domestic violence. The league’s historical lack of action concerning domestic violence suggested that they did not see it as harmful to society as the other off-field behaviors that they have consistently condemned. It would seem that elite athletes were untouchable when it came to domestic violence.
Previously, the relationship between the media and athletes was mutually beneficial. Reporters needed access to the athletes, and the athletes wanted good press. As a result, reporters would purposefully avoid printing stories on hot topics, such as Michael Jordan’s affinity for Gambling or Tiger Woods infidelity to his wife. Now, however, media outlets don’t have to rely on athletes or leagues for information.
The attitude within the teams and leagues contributed to the problem as well. Teams didn’t care about domestic violence. “They are there to win and get paid, and that happens by having exceptional athletes.” Thus, the teams and the leagues were not incentivized to report cases of domestic violence. Their first priority is to make money.
In fact, when you look at the numbers, it is almost astounding how few athletes faced consequences for their actions, both in the legal arena and in their leagues as well. Between the years 2010 and 2014, there were 64 total reported allegations of domestic violence and sexual assault by professional athletes, with 39 against NFL players, 16 against NBA players, and 9 against MLB players. 18 of these allegations concerned sexual assault and 46 were of domestic violence. Out of these 64 claims, only one domestic violence allegation resulted in conviction, despite the fact that four players pleaded guilty to lesser charges and three players pleaded no contest. None of the sexual assault allegations resulted in a conviction, even though two players pleaded no contest. When it comes to in-league punishments, the numbers are even more startling. Concerning the four sexual assault allegations and five domestic violence allegations against MLB players, not one athlete was punished by the league. Of the two sexual assault allegations and 14 domestic violence allegations against NBA players in this time period, there was only one team punishment of a player and one league punishment. Regarding the 12 sexual assault allegations against NFL players, only one resulted in a suspension. Of the 27 domestic violence allegations involving NFL players, only five resulted in league punishment and one in team punishment. These numbers clearly display a systemic failure on the part of the leagues, law enforcement, and the justice system to respond to cases of domestic violence involving elite athletes.
Luckily, the visibility of the Ray Rice incident sparked a shift towards more strict policies towards domestic violence. After the media coverage and resulting public outrage at his initial two-game suspension, the NFL revised its Player Conduct Policy to now cover domestic violence offenses. A first violation now results in a six-game suspension and a second violation results in the permanent banishment of the offending player from the league. The NFL also has hired three female experts to inform NFL policy- Lisa Friel, the former head of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit in the New York County District Attorney’s Office, Jane Randel, co-founder of NO MORE, and Rita Smith, the former executive direction of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. With the NFL leading the way in Player Conduct Policy reform, we can only hope to see more elite athletes being held responsible for cases of domestic violence, both in the courts and in the leagues.
McManus, J. (April 28, 2017). If not the player, Ray Rice asks you to forgive the man. ESPN.com. Retrieved from http://www.espn.com/espnw/culture/feature/article/19248874/if-not-player-ray-rice-asks-forgive-man
Tummons, T. (October 21, 2016). The domestic violence problem in pro sports. The Hilltop Monitor. Retrieved from http://hilltopmonitor.com/the-domestic-violence-problem-in-pro-sports/
Withers, B. P. (July 12, 2015). Without Consequence: When Professional Athletes Are Violent Off the Field. Journal of Sports & Entertainment Law: Harvard Law School. Retrieved from http://harvardjsel.com/2015/07/bethany-withers-without-consequence/
(August 1, 2015). Domestic violence scandals in pro sports may bring about positive changes, panelists say. American Bar Association. Retrieved from https://www.americanbar.org/news/abanews/aba-news-archives/2015/08/domestic_violencesc.html