Guest commentary: Learning from Janay and Ray Rice
Both the Internet and workplace water coolers are flooded with news and conversation about the Baltimore Ravens’ termination of Ray Rice’s contract and the NFL’s indefinite suspension based on TMZ’s release of video that shows Rice punching his then-fiancee, and now wife, Janay Palmer. Ever since the incident occurred Feb. 15, there have been many who have decried the NFL’s two-game suspension of Rice as a punishment hardly fitting the crime. Largely, as a result of this outcry, and only because of the outcry, the NFL amended its policies in August to a six-game suspension for first-time domestic-violence offenders and a potential lifetime ban for repeat offenders.
I am grateful for any progress made in the realm of increasing national awareness and dialogue of the scourge of domestic violence as well as efforts that increase accountability for perpetrators. Yet it’s hard to feel positive about the steps being taken by the NFL when it appears that those steps are only being taken under the duress of significant public pressure and backlash.
It’s also hard to feel confident in a legal system that agrees to a pretrial diversion program in which Rice serves no jail time (as is true of most domestic-violence offenders) or probation and is ultimately able to have a clean criminal record. I can’t help but ask myself: Why did it take the TMZ video in which we watch Rice knock Janay to the ground prior to dragging her limp body out of the elevator to cause people to stand up and say this is not OK? We do not know for sure if the Ravens, the NFL or even the local law enforcement had the video from inside the elevator prior to the second video’s release, when critical decisions regarding league and criminal consequences for Rice were being decided. However, if they didn’t have the second video, the important question is, “Why didn’t they?”
Surely this is within the power of law enforcement to subpoena from the casino where the incident occurred and within the power of the NFL to ask for and obtain. And even if they didn’t have the video showing the actual blows to the face that rendered Janay unconscious, why would that so drastically change the response when it was previously well-understood that Rice assaulted Janay and then dragged her body from the elevator? Why did Roger Goodell, coach John Harbaugh and others need to see the actual punches to acknowledge the fact that Ray Rice isn’t the “good guy” they so desperately wanted him to be? The reality in most domestic-violence cases is that there is often little evidence of the violence beyond the word of the victim, and more often than not, the victim will minimize, deny, justify or blame themselves for their partner’s violence.
Many people express confusion, shock and frustration to know that after the brutal attack, Janay Rice married Ray and is standing by him and defending him still. In fact, with the recent release of the TMZ video, Janay’s statement indicates that she feels that it is the media and the public that are causing her pain rather than the individual who brutally attacked her.
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Having worked with domestic-violence survivors for nine years, I am not surprised by this. Organizations such as Response wouldn’t need to exist if victims didn’t love their perpetrators at the same time that they fear them. This is the complexity of domestic violence that makes it simultaneously so difficult for those outside the relationship to comprehend and so hard for those in the relationship to leave.
At this point, for reasons that only she knows, it is easier for Janay to hope and believe that her partner will never act this way again than to acknowledge that it is possible and probable that he will. As a victim, that is her right, and I have stood by many clients to offer them unconditional, nonjudgmental support, meeting them exactly where they are. For many, it takes multiple incidents of violence, multiple attempts at leaving and just the right support systems in place until they actually leave an abusive relationship. And because more often than not the victim and others want to protect the perpetrator, it is all the more reason why we must rely on our institutions such as the NFL or the criminal-justice system to draw the line.
We live in a culture that glorifies our sports heroes. And yes, we send amazingly contradictory messages not only to these athletes but to the millions of fans who watch. Individuals and teams are lauded and compensated for being profoundly violent and aggressive during competition and then are expected to turn off that switch when off the field, court or ice.
Like it or not, the NFL and other professional sports serve a significant role in influencing our social norms and values, and with this comes an opportunity to create change by sending an important message that abusive behavior will not be tolerated. With coach Harbaugh’s most recent statement that he hopes that this couple can work it out and make it, as opposed to the much more appropriate statement that domestic violence is not OK and will not be tolerated, an important opportunity to educate the public and lead by example was missed. So far, only baby steps have been taken characterized by reaction rather than action. I hope that this is just the beginning: the beginning of dialogue, the beginning of recognition and the beginning of systemic change. I truly hope to see that the NFL is sending the message loud and clear that there is no place for those who commit abuse in their relationships on the field. Then maybe victims can believe there is no place for those who commit abuse within the home.
Jill Gruenberg is the Advocacy and Prevention Program coordinator for Response: Help for Victims of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. Response will be conducting a free 30-hour training on domestic violence and sexual assault. The training is open to new volunteers interested in becoming advocates on Response’s 24-hour hotline beginning Monday. For more information and to sign up, visit http://responsehelps.org or call 970-920-5357.
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