The NFL had little choice but to revise its position on domestic violence after Ray Rice’s admission that he struck his then-fiancé and he was only given a two-game suspension when another player was suspended for the year due to marijuana usage. The new position on how the league will respond to domestic violence is courageous and overdue, but there is a risk that the implementation will swing the pendulum too far, and make athletes potentially punished without due process. The problems lie in two particular areas, and they merit attention: first, domestic violence is not nearly as simple of a problem to fix as the naysayers in the community would like to depict and second, prevention and treatment programs are similarly complicated to effectively implement.

To begin, domestic violence is a complex problem where a one-size-fits-all approach simply doesn't work.  Perpetrators are male and female.  Homosexual and heterosexual.  Rich and poor.  And there are many different dynamics at work - not to mention different typologies of batterers. Just like with infidelity, it is not true that every relationship is over after the first transgression.  It is not true that people cannot reform. It is not true that every victim is stuck in the cycle of violence.  There are only two people who really know the dynamics of the Rice marriage and they really don't owe the public an explanation.  Domestic violence is wrong. Undeniably.  But simple?  No.

The picture that is often painted is of the alcoholic male who comes home from work drunk and spontaneously beats up his wife for no apparent reason. The analogous athlete model is that the pro comes home from practice and picks up his girlfriend and puts a gun to her head. Neither situation is what happens as the common dance, so continuing to provide this imagery serves nothing but confusion. The fact is that most domestic violence is low-level and bidirectional; meaning that it doesn’t raise to the point of serious injury (requiring medical attention) and it is usually harm that is caused by both parties..

Do not misunderstand what I am saying. If anyone (male or female), engages in physical violence, the behavior is inexcusable. And that is where the complexities lie. There are many cases where a female may strike a male, and this is just as wrong; though less commonly discussed. I responded to a case where a man was arrested for domestic violence while he was unconscious. There clearly was an argument that ensued, but when the police got to the scene, the woman admitted to knocking him out with a frying pan. She did not have any injuries on her body. She was not arrested. He was. Domestic violence laws are set up to at least remove, if not arrest, the aggressor, however in practice this is most commonly presumed to be the male. Further, I have been involved in child custody cases where all kinds of abuse is alleged in order to gain sympathy in their fight—from domestic violence to sexual molestation of the children—that turn out to be unsubstantiated. And this is not nearly as uncommon as the general public might wish it to be. So what is the moral of the story? Woman do sometimes engage in physical violence towards men (and it is not always in reaction to a Battered Woman’s defense) and there are false allegations in domestic violence. Therefore, for the current condition to be that a pro athlete will be suspended six games for the first offense and banned for life for the second offense, requires there being a solid investigation by the NFL, with the utilization of a domestic violence expert, before punishment is meted out.

To expound on this point, one needs to be mindful of some of the disgraceful behavior that occurs in volatile relationships that lead to the pot eventually boiling over. There have been athletes that I have worked with that have flaunted their infidelities in front of their wives with an indignant entitlement. I have seen athletes carry themselves with a “Do you know who I am?” mentality that not only convinces themselves they aren’t accountable to those that they have exchanged vows with, but also been above the law. However, on the other side, I have seen women dress down men with such cruel, surgical precision that a 300 pound athlete looks like a vulnerable child with no sense of self. I have seen women get up in men’s faces, spit in their face (literally), question their manhood, and shatter their egos. And this is equally wrong.

When a man is in a relationship with someone who has greater social intelligence than them, and is therefore more sophisticated in arguments, conflict can escalate upwards. There are times when the man simply cannot compete in the verbal arena anymore. If you add to that the athletic privilege that many of these men have been showered with since childhood, this can create a desperation, an ego shock, where the man believes (wrongly) that the only choice he has is to use force to re-establish dominance; after all, it is what they would do on the field. Considering the differential reinforcement that athletes have for aggression, it is somewhat surprising how many athletes demonstrate good emotion regulation and never have an off-the-field transgression.

Again, if the man lifts his hand, there will be no excuse. But also, if he does nothing, he remains injured. For professional athletes, the only way to win this game is not to play. That is the exact opposite of everything an athlete is taught from the time they are children. There is no game that you don’t play, and if you play, you play to win. To teach athletes to walk away from an escalating conflict, especially when they are repeatedly drilled on how to handle hand-to-hand conflict in the trenches of sports, is a daunting task. It is very difficult and this doesn’t even consider those that grew up in environments that normalized violence against women. 

To say domestic violence is inexcusable is obvious, but that is not the same as unexplainable and if you want to treat a problem, you have to be able to explain it, to understand it. 

This does not even acknowledge the fact that domestic violence is not a heterosexual-specific phenomenon. Research shows that domestic violence in homosexual relationships occurs at approximately a 25% clip; very similar to that found in heterosexual relationships. These dynamics met when former San Francisco 49er tackle Kwame Harris was arrested for domestic violence when he had a physical confrontation with his boyfriend in a California restaurant.

The second issue that requires attention is the methodologies for prevention and treatment. Domestic violence problems come from many different origins. Anger management issues. Normalization of violence as a method to solve problems. A belief system that accepts domestic violence, especially if the individual grew up in such an environment. Misogynistic philosophies that are rooted in chauvinism and entitlement, that lead some men to believe women are there to serve them and do as they wish. Willingness to be self-aware and having the foresight to end a relationship if it has the seeds of volatility planted. Oh…and fragile egos…folks with fragile egos are particularly susceptible to lashing out when their manhood is threatened. The idea that male athletes, because they are physically healthy, would also be psychologically healthy is a misconception that I have cautioned against for years; a reality that people still underappreciate.

While the list above is not an exhaustive list, it captures the importance of individualization of prevention programs to consider the needs of an at-risk population. It must begin with normalization and validation of the feelings that an individual may have before they commit an act of domestic violence, while simultaneously dissuading the actual behavior. Damning the individual, as a general rule, does not help them avail themselves of treatment. Helping the person recognize that being frustrated in an interaction is being human, but it is a show of personal power to not act on those feelings; to not strike, even when the emotions push one to. Just as the toughest person in prison doesn’t fight. Real strength is when, regardless of what someone says to you, they cannot control you and force you to lash out. Because, after all, for a professional athlete, there is a good chance that the damage that you may do to the recipient of the quarrel, is still far less than the damage you may do to your career, and your life.

The current trend in prevention world espouses the Bystander Model to prevent violence. It is being implemented by many organizations, including athlete populations, as a method to reduce future transgressions. In this model, the goal is to foster an encouraging environment for others to speak out against sexist attitudes, rape myth beliefs, and sexual violence itself. Confronting sexual violence can help change the social norms of a community and society as a whole. This is a nice sentiment and there is research to support it. The problem is that it is necessary, but not sufficient; and it is particularly vulnerable with sport populations.

Why? Well, for one thing, the culture of athletics is dictated by the coaching staff. The power dynamics that exist, especially in team sports, make for it to be near impossible for an underclassmen or player of lesser status to speak up against the misogyny of their senior players. Bystander education underappreciates the need for both top-down and bottom-up interventions for such problems. The culture of the whole organization, and for that matter, our society, has to have no tolerance for the acceptability of violence if you want to see change.

What is lacking in the Bystander Model programs is accountability. It isn’t just about me being my brother’s keeper, but me being educated about the law regarding domestic violence, my understanding the impact such behavior can have on me, my victim, my team, and the unintended consequences of my behavior. Most men do not understand the history of violence against women. How long victims have remained silent because the legal system failed them. There is a lack of appreciation that the only way domestic violence is not a male issue (even if they never commit an act) is to have no females in their lives. Most statistics agree that for both sexual and domestic violence, approximately 1 in 4 females will be a victim over the course of their lives. Men have to be taught this…and they are best taught this by men.

This all being said, I have often appreciated the courage of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for making decisions, taking a stand, and holding professional athletes accountable in ways that his predecessors and contemporaries have not. His letter to NFL owners this past week where he admitted that he “didn’t get it right” referencing the too-light penalty for Rice’s domestic violence incident was moving and clearly an attempt to put the NFL back on the right path. However, without the guidance of domestic violence and legal experts consulting on these matters, there is a risk that athletes can find themselves losing their livelihood due to unsubstantiated allegations. For the position the NFL is taking to be effective, prudence is needed to evaluate situations on a case by case basis. How that will play out is not yet well established, though unfortunately, it is unlikely to take long before an opportunity will present itself with another athlete’s arrest. 

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