Domestic Violence in the NFL: How the Ray Rice Scandal Cracked the Conversation Wide Open

An ESPN commentator said women should try not to provoke men to violence. The public backlash has proved sports culture can be a fertile place to debate women's rights, after all.
Football photo from Shutterstock

Photo from Shuttestock.


Today while addressing the media, the Commissioner of the National Football League Roger Goodell said this: “Domestic violence is not acceptable in the NFL.”

That statement’s been open to debate over the last couple of weeks. Here’s why.

Last week Goodell suspended the star running back of the Baltimore Ravens, Ray Rice. The penalty was levied after Rice was caught dragging the limp body of his then fiancee, Janay Palmer, out of a hotel elevator in Atlantic City. During the elevator ride Rice had punched her unconscious.

Ray Rice photo from Shutterstock

Ray Rice. Photo from Shutterstock.

After the incident, Rice, 27, pleaded no contest to one charge of aggravated assault. After agreeing to participate in an intervention program, he faced no trial. Upon completion of the program he will likely have the count cleared from his record.

The couple, now married, held a press conference together where Rice publicly apologized for his actions.

Essentially, Ray Rice faced no legal repercussions of any lasting consequence for this act of domestic violence. This meant that many were looking to the NFL to enforce some kind of consequence. Instead, Goodell suspended him for two games.

This is not a serious penalty. The suspension came from the Commissioner, but is supported elsewhere in the league. The VP of the NFL deemed the two-game ban “appropriate.” Meanwhile, Ravens coach Jim Harbaugh said the incident was no big deal and defended Rice as a “heck of a guy”.

The NFL does not consider domestic violence a serious issue. Rice’s actions are only the latest in a long list of incidents of violence and abuse against women.

Domestic violence, assault, and battery are all considered violations of the “personal conduct policy,” and penalties are decided by Goodell on a case-by-case basis. Yet consequences for this violence rarely measure up to other high-profile penalties doled out by the league.

Smith told viewers that, while men are responsible for their actions, women need to be sure they do not provoke violence from their partners.

Plaxico Burress received a four-game suspension for accidentally shooting himself in the leg. Josh Gordon faces a potential lifetime ban from the NFL for his third marijuana infraction. And just this summer, Robert Matthis received a four-game suspension for taking a “banned substance”—in this case, a medically prescribed fertility assistance drug. In the NFL, Matthis’ desire to conceive a child with his wife received twice the penalty of a man beating a woman unconscious.

As it turns out, the public does consider domestic violence a serious issue. The reaction was swift—and overwhelmingly negative. Much of the initial response can be summed up by New York-based sports journalist Jane McManus, who described the two-game suspension like this: “it’s a joke, and a bad one.

“They have an abysmal record of responding to domestic violence amongst their players,” said Gwyn Kaitis, Director of the Illinois Domestic Violence Help Line at the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network. “We believe that a two-game suspension and fine is a supremely inadequate response by the National Football League.”

And then came ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith. Smith wrote an outrageous analysis of the situation that propelled the Rice controversy into a larger cultural discussion of domestic violence and provocation.

Smith is co-host of ESPN’s two-hour daily sports talk debate program First Take. During comments about the lax nature of the NFL suspension, Smith told viewers that, while men are responsible for their actions, women need to be sure they do not provoke violence from their partners.

Smith relayed advice he gives to women in his family: “Let’s make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions...Let’s make sure that we do our part to make sure that doesn’t happen...Domestic violence, or whatever the case may be with men putting their hands on women, is obviously a very real real issue in our society. Just talking about what guys shouldn’t do, we got to also make sure you do your part, whatever you can do, to make sure it doesn’t happen.”

Violence against women is not a result of men losing control, but taking control.

Don’t provoke men, Smith says, and domestic violence might not occur. Smith, whose comments were as tone deaf to domestic violence as Todd Akin's were to rape, delivered a long and winding monologue about the “elements of provocation” that women need to be aware of, and avoid, to ensure that they do not push men's buttons and make them do something crazy.

Reactions immediately began rolling in on social media—and among Smith’s harshest critics have been other hosts and commentators employed by ESPN. In particular, SportsNation host Michelle Beadle expressed her outrage on Twitter:

In other words, violence against women is not a result of men losing control, but taking control.

One of the most powerful reactions to the Rice/Smith controversy comes from writer and former college football player Byron Hurt. In a piece for Ebony this week he examines Smith’s comments and unpacks the relationship between men and violence against women. If provocation is the culprit, Hurt reasons, then one would expect athletes to lash out at coaches and others who give them reason to react violently.

"Coaches shame players into thinking they are not good, fast, strong, smart, disciplined, or talented enough to compete on the field,” Hurt writes. “Players generally accept this behavior from coaches with little resistance.”

Some coaches take things even further, emotionally and even physically abusing players. And yet this provocation rarely ever leads to violence from players.

The reason this is not the case, Hurt argues, is because athletes are taught from the very beginning of their participation in athletics that coaches are in control. Hit your coach and you are done. Because players are aware of these consequences, they “keep their cool.”

And then he says this:

"In male-female relationships, however, the power dynamics are much different. Boys and men are taught the opposite about who controls the relationship.  We are socialized to believe that men are superior and are supposed to reign over girls’ and women’s bodies.  We are taught that men have more power than girls and women, not less.  So when a woman usurps our authority by talking back, embarrassing us, showing disrespect, pushing or hitting us, or wounding our egos (especially publicly), we men maintain our control, by using physical and sexual violence. Let me be clear.  We don’t lose our control in the face of women’s provocation, as men like Stephen A. Smith suggest.  We exert our control.”

This kind of behaviorfrom Rice’s domestic violence to the defensive stance of the NFLis all too familiar in American sports culture. The worst kinds of misogyny and violence are often embodied in the masculine posturing of professional athletics.

But its also worth recognizing that sports has provided a platform to rebuke that same misogyny and violence. Former athletes, journalists, and TV hosts have become a central part of our media landscape, from Ebony to ESPN. Add to Beadle's and Hurt’s reactions, that of former NFL player Mark Schlereth, who called the entire Ray Rice situation a “blemish on the league.”

If anything about this situation can be called refreshing, it's that many icons of mainstream sports culture have not shied away from the hits, but run straight into the action.