Understanding the Ray Rice Domestic Abuse Case Does not Require an Understanding of Football

On Monday, TMZ released footage (although there’s a strong argument to be made against members of the public viewing it) from the Atlantic City, N.J. hotel elevator in which Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice had allegedly assaulted his partner, Janay Palmer, in February. Before the video was accessible, the NFL had suspended Rice for two games before commissioner Roger Goodell publicly apologized for the weak response and added to league rules a six-game suspension for any players or league officials found to have committed domestic violence. In Baltimore on Monday, Rice was cut from the Ravens before the NFL suspended him “indefinitely.”

Football fan or not, this recently-surfaced footage of Rice hitting his then-fiancee (now wife) Janay, and the media aftermath that has followed, should be of concern to everyone, and everyone should understand its impact on themselves and others. Professional sports, particularly football in the United States, account for a huge portion of what we consider popular culture, and popular culture manages to sink itself into the most obscure corners of our everyday lives. Consider this, along with the fact that Rice is not the first professional athlete, and certainly not the first celebrity, to abuse–physically or otherwise–his partner, and suddenly there is a perfect storm of sexist, misogynistic, and power-hungry messaging permeating everyone’s minds whether they seek it out or not.

If Rice was not famous, if he was not (until Monday) contracted for $35,000,000 by the Baltimore Ravens, this incident would have, like most of the estimated 1.3 million cases of domestic abuse against women each year, gone unnoticed by the media and the general public. But because he is a high profile athlete, Rice, his wife, and the details of this incident have been devoured and spit back up by the media, more often than not in ways that are harmful to societal perceptions of domestic abuse and violence against women.

Before Ray Rice, there were other instances of domestic violence by other NFL players. Take, for example, Michael Pittman, who, in 2002, was signed on by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers “despite a history of domestic violence.” According to the Tampa Bay Times:

On May 31, 2003, Pittman was enraged at his wife, Melissa. As she drove away, with their 2-year-old son and his babysitter, Pittman drove his Hummer into her Mercedes-Benz. Melissa did not press charges, but she did tell investigators she had “30 to 40” unreported incidents of abuse.

After a year, the National Football League suspended Pittman for a total of three games. This–as well as Rice’s heavily criticized original two-game suspension this year–pales severely in comparison to some of the NFL’s other suspension rules and precedents, including a possible calendar-year suspension for substance abuse. We see this disproportionate shaming placed on things such as illicit drug use over objectification of and violence against other human beings (particularly women in these cases) in all sectors of popular culture, so it’s no surprise that the NFL and the media concerned with it only perpetuate it.

Non-athletic celebrities, including Seth Rogen (above) and Lena Dunham have taken to Twitter to express their views on the Baltimore Ravens' and NFL's handling of Ray Rice's abuse against his wife, Janay.
Non-athletic celebrities, including those self-identified as being unfamiliar with football such as Seth Rogen (above) and Lena Dunham, have taken to Twitter to express their outrage with the Baltimore Ravens’ and NFL’s handling of Ray Rice’s abuse of his wife, Janay.

And this is why domestic abuse and other assault charges brought against athletes are not just problems for people familiar with any given sport, or for only players and fans of sports. This is not an issue that only the Baltimore Ravens and the NFL have to learn to recognize and address appropriately and proportionately. There are reasons why victims of domestic abuse by NFL players have historically largely chosen not to press charges against their abusers, and these are not specific to victims of professional athletes: it is for the same reasons that most victims of domestic and sexual violence choose not to report incidents or press charges. This is not an isolated incident, not for the Ravens, not for the NFL, and not for the world as a whole, and therefore it is a reminder that this is an issue for the Ravens, for the NFL, and for the world as a whole to acknowledge and challenge.

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