This week, pop culture conversations in the United States have been dominated by discussions of the recently released video of Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancé (and now wife) Janay Palmer.
There are so many different facets of this discussion which I could address, but I’ve chosen to focus on the two which have been the most prominent in my mind.
Cent #1: Domestic violence is a widespread problem in professional sports
American society is reactionary. As a result, so too are the professional sports leagues which make hundreds of billions of dollars off of the American public.
Do you think Ray Rice is the first professional athlete to hit his girlfriend or wife? Hell, do you think he’s even the first one to do it this year?
Do you think that domestic violence is only a problem in physical sports like football or basketball? If so, you should check out this SBNation article about how bad the problem is in the MLB.
My point is this. By giving pro-athletes almost godlike status in American society, we have created an environment in which we encourage and actively cultivate characteristics like aggression, cockiness and general machismo in our young male athletes.
And at the same time that we are reinforcing these false “masculine ideals” in our boys and young men, we are also grossly underemphasizing the importance of education.
If you’re a good enough athlete, you often don’t even have to think about school. The teachers always pass you in Jr. High and High School to avoid the inevitable ire they would draw if they failed the star player and kept him from playing. If you make it to a big enough college, you get your own mini-army of “tutors” who do everything for you, from homework to essays to exams.
Besides being passed through all of your classes without ever really doing or learning anything, being a great athlete comes with plenty of other privileges as well.
There’s plenty of free food and free stuff, and most importantly, you also tend to get away with a lot of things that would’ve gotten you suspended or even thrown in jail if you weren’t producing so many W’s for your team.
The result: a bunch of huge guys with ridiculously high levels of testosterone and a 6th grade reading level who have never been told no or held accountable for anything.
All that being said, what Ray Rice did was deplorable and truly sickening to watch.
But the question we should be asking ourselves right now is not why Ray Rice would knock out his wife or why she would marry him afterwards.
The question we should be asking ourselves is why doesn’t the NFL (or other professional leagues for that matter) require players to attend seminars about the issue of domestic violence? Why don’t they provide training to the players on how to de-escalate confrontational situations like that?
Let’s be real here: professional sports are full of volatile relationships. The combination of money, ignorance, temptation and fame has a way of bringing out the very worst in people.
But rather than admit that domestic violence is a real problem in pro sports, we make examples of those few players who happen to get caught in the act.
Rather than trying to do something systematically to address the issue, we (once again) satisfy ourselves with destroying the public image of one individual, like sharks in a social media bloodbath…
Interesting Note: NFL players are actually more than 7.5 times less likely to get arrested than the average citizen.
However, when you compare NFL players’ arrest rates to the national average, you see that domestic violence is clearly a significant problem in the league.
Cent #2: The voiceless victim
What has surprised me the most about this whole episode is the way that people are treating the victim, Janay Palmer.
More specifically, I was shocked by the way in which many women claiming to be speaking the voice of feminism reacted towards her.
When Palmer chose to stay with Rice after the incident and follow through with their plans for marriage, many women bashed her for being weak or even stupid.
When she called out the media on her Instagram after the most recent video came out, the criticism returned. This time it seemed a bit more insidious though, with some people calling her a gold-digger and assassinating her character in other ways.
But what I found far more disturbing than anything were the women (and men) who offered their pity to Palmer, basically saying she was brainwashed by an abusive husband and that was why she chose to stay with him and publicly defend their relationship.
Don’t get me wrong, there is no doubt that constant abuse, even if it’s just verbal, can destroy a person’s sense of self-worth and make them emotionally dependent on their abuser. But we must tread carefully lest we de-legitimize the voice of the most important person involved: the victim.
I don’t know Janay Palmer, or the first thing about her relationship with Ray Rice, for that matter.
But I do know that she has a degree from Towson University in Baltimore, and to me, her words sound like the words of an intelligent and strong woman and mother who has been through a lot, not the words of some celebrity gold-digger or a weak and defeated woman.
Yet we choose to hear her words the least, and to paint irreparably flawed images of her character that allow us to interpret this whole story in a way that fits conveniently with our personal worldviews and completely masks our utter ignorance about fame, relationships and violence in America.
And either way, we’ll probably forget about this whole thing in a few weeks when the NBA begins and the NFL season really kicks into full gear, so no need to really take the time to learn about, understand and solve the problem, right?
I know there are plenty of things I left unsaid here. If there’s anything you’d like to add to the conversation, please do so in the comment section below.