The NFL has been all over the news lately, and NOT because of football. Instead, the NFL is once again facing serious public outrage over its handling of Ray Rice’s violent assault of his then-fiancée (now wife) Janay Palmer. The most recent headlines have made it clear that it isn’t just the NFL that has a problem with domestic violence — it’s our culture as a whole.
A quick recap: this incident began in February 2014, when a video emerged of Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée out of an Atlantic City elevator. He was arrested and indicted for aggravated assault — charges which were later dropped when he agreed to enter a pretrial diversion program. Rice married Ms. Palmer one day after he was indicted, and she later appeared beside him at a press conference, apologizing for “her role” in the assault. In July, the NFL suspended Rice for only two games for the assault — a decision which immediately drew public outrage. In August, the NFL announced that it had revised its domestic violence policy, with first-time offenses to receive a six game suspension, and second-time offenses a ban from the league. Less than two weeks later, TMZ released video of the actual assault, showing Rice punching Palmer in the face, and Palmer immediately crumpling to the floor, unconscious. The reaction to the video’s release was immediate, with outraged fans and commentators questioning how exactly the NFL could let Rice off with such a light punishment after seeing such a video. The NFL denies having seen the video before issuing its punishment, a claim that which seems very unlikely. Within hours of the video’s release, the Ravens terminated Rice’s contract, and the NFL banned him from the league.
There is much to unpack here: why a prosecutor would dismiss charges after seeing video of that brutal attack, why the NFL didn’t seem to care about the assault until it realized it had a PR nightmare on its hands, why fans weren’t outraged about the assault until after they saw video evidence, or how so many in the football world could defend – and even praise – Rice after he brutally assaulted his fiancée. But this incident has also brought forth some of the most damaging stereotypes and views about domestic violence: Did she provoke him? Why did she stay? Why did she defend him?
These questions — focused on the victim rather than the abuser — are not the ones we should be asking. A woman stays in an abusive relationships for any number of reasons: because her abuser frequently has control over all the finances as a way to prevent her from having independence, because she has children with him and he’s told her she’ll lose those children if she leaves him, or even because she’s afraid of what will happen to her abuser if he is arrested. There is also the chilling fact that leaving an abuser increases a woman’s risk of being killed by 75%. This is even more true for Black women — almost half of female African American victims of intimate partner homicide were killed when trying to leave their abusers. An entire Twitter conversation has sprung up on this very topic, with survivors of domestic violence tweeting #WhyIStayed or #Why ILeft. The dynamics of an abusive relationship are incredibly complicated — and we are not in a position to judge the choices made by a woman in an abusive relationship. Moreover, this focus on the victim’s decisions misses the point — we need to focus on the actions of the abuser, not the victim. The most important question and one that still isn’t being asked? Why does an abuser (Rice) choose to abuse?
All of this circles back to truly examining our culture and the root causes of gender violence in our society. Let’s stop victim-blaming and scrutinizing Janay Palmer Rice’s actions. Instead, let’s focus on how we can end the violence. We need to ask the important question: why does an abuser abuse? We must challenge the media in the way it portrays women. And we must think critically about where we choose to invest our time and money, knowing that a true boycott is a surefire way to get the attention of decision-makers (is football in America really more important than women’s lives?).
You can join us in this fight by volunteering, donating, becoming a critical consumer of media, or getting involved in your community by participating in Blackburn Center events. Together, we can challenge the power and DEMAND change!