I’m tired, folks.
Another day, another parade of domestic violence allegations against professional athletes. Another week, another flood of teams failing to respond appropriately to the allegations. It feels like we’re living in some screwed up version of Groundhog Day in which the sports world keeps getting opportunities to meet allegations of violence against women by their athletes with an appropriate response, and it keeps failing.
That failure has high stakes—it comes at the expense of the emotional and physical safety of women all over the country—and an obvious root cause: sports culture doesn’t see the female victims of these star male athletes as valuable. Put simply, the athlete matters more than his victim because the athlete provides on-the-field value for the teams. The women are just headaches who are causing PR crises; they are an inconvenience, their pain is hypothetical.
The newest allegations feel all the more exasperating because of how many times it seems we’ve been here before. Last week, TMZ Sports released a video of Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt shoving and kicking a woman. The Chiefs released Hunt over the weekend once the video was published, which would seem like a positive step, but the details are more damning. Kansas City was aware of the incident, but took Hunt at his word when he told them he never left his hotel room and that he “didn’t do a thing.”
The NFL launched its own investigation, but never talked to Hunt or the woman he assaulted. It was only the release of the video, which shows he lied to the organization, that prompted the Chiefs to cut Hunt. In the statement announcing his release, Kansas City made clear that this was not a situation where an athlete lost his job because of an act of violence against a woman, this was an athlete losing his job because he was dishonest.
The Chiefs publicly addressed the incident in August with a concerning statement. “The team’s made up of a bunch of young men,” Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt told the Kansas City Star. “They’re not always going to make the best decisions, but we have a strong support system, both with the coaching staff and also with our player development department that works with young guys and talks to them about the situations that they want to be in.” This statement is testament to the redemption narrative that athletes are so often given. They are men who have simply made mistakes, who deserve second chances, who have learned from those mistakes (mistakes which came at the expense of women’s well-being).
Washington demonstrated this troubling narrative last week when they acquired Reuben Foster, who had been released by the San Francisco 49ers following a domestic violence arrest. Senior Vice President of Player Personnel Doug Williams was forced to issue an apology for his incredibly insensitive radio interview about their decision to claim Foster off waivers. Williams acknowledged that he knew people would criticize the move before calling what Foster had been accused of as “small potatoes” and justified it by saying that there were people in “high, high, high places” who had done worse and still had their jobs.
These are just the most recent examples. Earlier this year, Ohio State University coach Urban Meyer and Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon similarly failed to consider the victims when reacting to domestic violence allegations against members of their organizations. Meyer compared former assistant coach Zack Smith’s ex-wife Courtney’s allegations of domestic violence to “marriage problems,” while Maddon flat out refused to even consider Melisa Reidy-Russell’s written description of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her ex-husband Addison Russell, dismissing it out of hand: “I’m not gonna be swayed one way or the other by reading [her blog post]. Anyone can write what they want with social media these days.” was
Reading the allegations against your player, in his victim’s words, seems like incredibly important information and context for a manager to have. Maddon’s refusal to even consider Reidy-Russell’s perspective, then, is the perfect crystallization of how the sports world simply ignores victims as anything other than the reason an athlete finds himself in trouble.
In all of the rationalizations and justifications to explain away the behavior of these men, to avoid saying what they really mean—that winning at sports is more important than the safety and well-being and humanity of women—the one thing that is always missing is any discussion of the victim in these cases. Does the woman Foster is accused of assaulting consider what happened to her “small potatoes?” I’d have to guess not. What about the woman Hunt shoved and kicked, who stands up in the video after being pushed to the ground and appears to struggle to regain her balance, stumbling around dizzily? Reidy-Russell’s blog post makes clear the profound and traumatic effect that Russell’s abuse had on her. “The way I was treated and the way he made me feel about myself, tore me down to nothing,” she wrote. “It took months for the night terrors to stop, to not have panic attacks 3 times a week, to look in the mirror and not feel worthless.”
According to the National Coalition on Domestic Violence, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men will experience intimate partner violence. Millions of survivors are watching coaches downplay abuse, make excuses for abusers, and spread misinformation, which conveys the message that domestic violence isn’t a serious issue and that abusive men will still be supported by the very people tasked with issuing consequences for their behavior. When coaches overlook or make excuses for violent behavior, it creates an environment where athletes know they can rebuild their careers after the dust of the allegations settles (see Jameis Winston, Aroldis Chapman, Joe Mixon, Steven Wright, Jeurys Familia, and even Roberto Osuna). It keeps women from coming forward because they worry they won’t be believed or they’ll be dragged through the mud.
No one is expecting men who have been raised in a patriarchal sports culture to offer feminist analysis of domestic violence, but reporters will still ask them for on-the-spot reactions to their teammates’ and players’ alleged abuse. They’ll still be expected to account for their decision to stick with a player accused of violence, or to respond to damning allegations against a member of their organization. Coaches are responsible for creating the culture of their locker rooms, and if they are incapable of empathizing with victims on their own, then teams, at the very least, should use their considerable resources to offer training so they can to answer these questions in a nuanced and effective way that doesn’t malign accusers.
In fact, media training and domestic violence education should be required for every member of every sports organization. Because these are easily avoidable missteps: domestic violence follows a consistent pattern and has easily recognizable hallmarks. The behavior is very rarely a “one time mistake,” but rather a pattern of behavior designed to establish power and control over a victim. Physical violence is usually the last kind of abuse exhibited by perpetrators; victims have usually been abused emotionally and psychologically for some time before their partner ever lays a hand on them. And there are countless real and valid reasons why victims both choose to drop charges against their abuser and choose to stay with their abuser (consider that victims are in greatest danger of being killed by their abuser after they’ve left the relationship). Ensuring that members of sports leagues understand these dynamics—especially the members who speak to the press—is an important step in preventing the PR crises that erupt after an athlete or coach puts their foot in their mouth.
In a time when there’s more awareness about these issues and statements will be looked at under a microscope, it’s worth asking why we’re seeing such repeated failures on such a large scale. One obvious answer is that sports still cares more about winning than it does about women; that men are still more able to empathize with men who have committed violence than they are with the women who have experienced it.
How hard is it to say, “I condemn domestic violence of any kind, and I’ll let the league handle their investigation of the issue?” Why is it so controversial to suggest that credible domestic violence allegations be met with a release of the player (like the 49ers did with Foster)? What if, in response to domestic-violence allegations against a teammate, a player simply held up a sign with the number to the local domestic violence agency while saying he condemned abuse and encouraged anyone who needed support to call the number? Now that I’d like to see. Maybe then I wouldn’t have to keep writing variations of this story every time a male athlete brutalizes a woman.