In August, news broke that the Pittsburgh Steelers had signed Michael Vick as a backup quarterback. The backlash was immediate: animal lovers across the region sprang into action to denounce Vick (who served two years in prison for his role in a dogfighting ring), holding protests and launching social media campaigns against him and the decision made by the Steelers. While we agree that animal abuse is horrific and stand firmly in opposition to it, we can’t help but wonder why the protests have only been directed at those who abuse animals — not people.
Michael Vick is far from the only Steeler with an arrest record or a history of violence. In fact, some of the most well-known players have been accused of serious crimes — including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has been accused of rape by two separate women (resulting in a four game suspension in 2010 for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy). Roethlisberger denied the allegations against him, and neither case resulted in criminal charges. Linebacker James Harrison admitted in 2008 that he broke down his girlfriend’s door, slapped her in the face and broke her cell phone in half — yet neither the Steelers nor the NFL punished Harrison. The Steelers re-signed Harrison last year, in the midst of the Ray Rice scandal, but did not face backlash for their decision to do so. A full listing of all Pittsburgh players with arrest records can be viewed here.
There is an obvious difference in the way that Steelers fans reacted to Vick becoming a Steeler and how they have reacted to players with a history of violence against women. Fans are outraged that someone they view as an animal abuser will play for their team — but see no problem in cheering for players who have admitted to abusing women, or who have been accused of sexually assaulting women. Why do we apply such different standards to these players? How is it possible for a person to protest Michael Vick while cheering for James Harrison? In our view, this disparity can be chalked up to one factor: how people perceive the victims. Animals are viewed as helpless victims of human cruelty, and rightfully so. Women, however, are often viewed as somehow complicit in their own abuse, or even blamed for it. Even where the abuser has openly admitted to beating his partner, people somehow manage to assign blame to the victim — and they essentially absolve the abuser of blame (which is what happened in James Harrison’s case). When a woman says that she is raped, far too many people look for reasons why it must be her fault, or for ways to discredit her allegations (this is exactly what happened to the two women who accused Ben Roethlisberger of raping them). This double standard for those who abuse animals versus those who abuse people reveals an ugly truth about our society: when it comes down to it, we are more troubled by those who abuse animals than by those who abuse humans. We’re also more likely to forgive and even defend those who abuse women — no matter how brutal the assault or how little remorse the abuser shows.
The fact that the Steelers face protests for signing Michael Vick, but not for re-signing James Harrison or continuing to play Ben Roethlisberger, is a clear example of how skewed our priorities are. Yes, animal abuse is horrific, and it should be protested — but why is that the only form of violence that fans find intolerable? We need to change our culture of violence in this country, and a good starting point is refusing to accept or condone violence in ANY form, whether it be against animals, women, men or children. You can push back against this in a number of different ways, including by boycotting the NFL and other sports leagues. If you’re not ready to do that, take a stand in a different way. If you’re heading to a Steelers game this season, go ahead and protest Michael Vick — but be sure to include other abusers on your signs. If you’re watching a game with friends or family, talk to them about these issues, and ask them why they accept or tolerate the presence of players who have abused women on the team. By speaking up, you can make a difference, and lead the way towards a culture that doesn’t tolerate abuse or violence against anyone, human or animal.