I’ll begin by stating, unequivocally, that domestic violence in any form is absolutely wrong. Threats, intimidating and controlling behaviour, physical or sexual violence, psychological manipulation; these are all undeniably wrong and unhealthy. What Ray Rice did, both inside and outside that elevator, falls into this category and was completely unacceptable.
Every day, in Canada and the United States, men (and women too, but mostly men) are violent towards their intimate partners. Some of these crimes come to the attention of authorities. In Canada, if there is evidence of a domestic assault, the police are required to lay criminal charges whether the victim wants to proceed or not. This means that there are lots of domestic violence cases going through the courts on any given day.
What does “lots” mean? According to a 2009 report from Statistics Canada, there are approximately 40,000 arrests related to domestic violence every year. That’s roughly 110 every day.
What do those domestic assaults look like? This question brings me to my first point about Ray Rice and the real problem of domestic violence: unless you have been a victim, or you are close with someone who has been a victim, you don’t really know what it looks like. Maybe this is why the public in general didn’t really bat an eye when Rice’s two game suspension was first announced. It’s one thing to hear that a man was charged with domestic assault for knocking his girlfriend unconscious, it is quite another to actually see that man throw a lightening quick punch to his fiancee’s face and watch her drop to the ground.
The sad reality is that we are a video generation; unless we can find something on YouTube it’s like it didn’t really happen. So it took seeing the video, played ad nauseum, to wake the public up to the realities of domestic assault.
Every day in Canada there are 110 neighbourhoods that see a spouse hauled away in handcuffs for assaulting their partners. Every day across this country hundreds of people, again mostly men, stand up in front of a judge and hear the details of their violence read into the public record. Every day, women across the country walk into hospitals or pharmacies or doctor’s offices seeking treatment for wounds inflicted at the hands of their partners.
Surely we have seen them? We’ve heard the wail of the police siren and we’ve heard the whispers of neighbours who hear the yelling coming from the house across the street. Yet we are oblivious until TMZ splashes the issue, in a convenient 3:34 second video, onto our TV screens and social media feeds. And then we’re all screaming for Ray Rice’s head. He should never play football again, he should lose any endorsement deals he’s got, he should pay massive fines, he should go to prison.
But what about the other 40,000 offenders every year? What happens to them? While a small percentage of them go to jail, the vast majority DO NOT. Actually, lots of them get the same punishment as Ray Rice; if they are a first offender and willing to plead guilty they are either granted entry into a diversion program where they have to attend counselling, or they are convicted and sentenced to probation – which requires them to attend counselling. This is true even for the cases where the violence is just as appalling as in the Ray Rice video, and for the tens of thousands of men who are nowhere near as rich and famous as Rice. I watched the news tonight, and I scrolled through my Facebook and Twitter feeds before sitting down to write this, and I didn’t see a single shared story or hashtag about any of those other 40,000 cases.
Ray Rice faced a police investigation and court process over what he did. I presume he was willing to plead guilty or had to express some other form of remorse to be entered into a diversion program. His wife – the victim – is standing by his side. Yes, there are many situations where the victim is too afraid to leave her abuser, but we don’t know that’s the case here. Whatever the situation, the reality is that the couple is staying together and they have a child. They both need help and support in making sure the violence doesn’t happen again. Most of those other 40,000 men get to carry on with their lives and their jobs and have the opportunity through counselling to take stock of their behaviour and their relationships. Rice (and his wife) have been publicly shamed in a way that the rest of them will never face.
Personally, I don’t think Rice should lose his job. Why should he be different than any of the other men who have done what he did? If the goal of society and the justice system really is rehabilitation, then Rice should be afforded the same chance as anyone else who goes through the system. Admittedly, our justice system is far from perfect, but it’s the one we’ve got. We know through years of research that punishment alone is not an effective motivator for change. That doesn’t mean I think two games is enough of a suspension, but it doesn’t have to be an either / or situation. The Baltimore Ravens and the NFL in general could have used this situation to both denounce domestic violence and also bring awareness and funding to programs for both offenders and victims. Instead they’ve fallen over themselves trying to cover up their indifference.
This brings me to what I think is the larger problem – what the hell is wrong with the NFL? I’m not just talking about the fact that they completely bungled the Rice investigation from Day One – which they did. But more importantly, how have they been allowed to shirk their social responsibilities for so long?
Here is an organization that reportedly makes US $10-billion in revenue every year. It’s projected to make US $25-billion by 2027. According to an article in the Financial Post, when the 2014 football season opened, football related programs occupied the top six positions in the weekly ratings. The league has giant troughs of cash and reaches into tens of millions of homes every week from August until February. They have strictly worded (if not always enforced) behaviour and morality clauses. And yet they have done virtually nothing to help actually address a family violence problem that touches millions of people including many of their fans and their own employees.
This week NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced the hiring of three new “senior advisors” to “help lead and shape the NFL’s policies and programs relating to domestic violence and sexual assault”. Aside from the fact that it’s mind-boggling that they didn’t have something like this in place years ago, I can’t help but think that Goodell is still missing the point. The league doesn’t just need to educate its staff and players on family violence issues. It’s time the NFL stepped up and used its place in our communities to actively make a difference towards ending these problems in society as a whole.
Imagine for a moment, that Goodell decided to get serious about the league’s opposition to domestic violence and sexual assault. The NFL has a presence in 32 cities across the United States, plus countless communities in surrounding areas that support NFL teams. I would bet that every single one of those communities has non-profit services for families coping with violence. The NFL could allocate just half a percent of its yearly revenue of ten billion (not 1%, half of that), and be able to donate 50 million dollars every year to social programs aimed at educating, intervening and rehabilitating families touched by domestic violence. (That would be 125 million by 2027.)
That’s not counting what every team could donate from their own revenues.
Let’s add to that – what if the NFL also donated any fines imposed for violations of the league’s morality clauses to charities? If the fine were for a drug violation, send the money to a drug treatment program in the player’s city. If it were for a violence issue, send the money to a counselling service or crisis program for victims. Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay was just fined US $500,000.00 for an impaired driving conviction – forward that along to Mothers Against Drunk Driving! What does the NFL even do with the fine money anyway? Surely they don’t count on it as a budget line item, so they wouldn’t miss it if it went to charity.
Now let’s get really crazy and imagine that the league decided to donate one single thirty second television spot, every game, towards public service announcements or advertising for charities. And what if every team gave free space at their stadiums to local community organizations, for spreading awareness and encouraging fan donations and engagement? How much better off would our communities be? For heaven’s sake, a month of videos of people pouring ice water on themselves generated millions of private donations to charity, how much more could come out of a platform supported by the behemoth that is the NFL?!
So as qualified and accomplished as these new “senior advisors” to the NFL must be, can’t the NFL just find some common sense ways to roll up their sleeves and make a difference? If they could do that, it seems to me that we wouldn’t be debating over the length of Ray Rice’s suspension or having former FBI Directors investigate an investigation that’s already been investigated. These are just smokescreens.
If the NFL, and other large organizations, and each one of us as individuals, could come together to support each other like that, there just might be fewer TMZ videos showing up in the social media newsfeeds of the next generation.