Domestic Violence & The NFL: Five Things Roger Goodell Needs to Know
I don’t blame people who don’t get it. I didn’t get it for a long time. In fact, it wasn’t until I was sitting in domestic violence court with a client, holding her jaw (which was clearly broken) closed as she sought a civil Order of Protection, that I got it. I was the only person there on her side. Her ex-husband, who had put her in the hospital more than once, showed up to court with a Bible, his pastor, and a host of church members ready to attest to his excellent character. He was a “great guy.”
Domestic violence is an ugly, dirty, soul-sucking corner of American life. Before I was lucky enough to get to talk about sports on the radio, I spent years in domestic violence and family court, both as as a defender of abusers and as an advocate for victims. I’m ashamed to say that, as a defense attorney, I often spouted all the horrible, ignorant remarks we’ve seen on Twitter since the Ray Rice news broke back in February: What did she do to provoke him? Isn’t this also her fault for staying with him? How do we know she’s not making this up?
Thankfully, I later got a job as an attorney for domestic violence victims. I realized how wrong I was, and working with those women (and men, who are also victims of abuse) changed my life. For as widespread as domestic violence is in America, the public is woefully under-educated about its dynamics, which is why someone like Roger Goodell can think a two-game suspension is a legitimate punishment for knocking out one’s fiance in an elevator. To that end, here are five things I want Roger Goodell (not to mention the NFL, its fans, and Americans in general), to know about domestic violence:
1) Abusers are often charming, friendly, and well-liked by those around them: I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve heard Ray Rice described as a “great guy,” or a “heck of a guy” by people who know him. However, abusers rarely show the ugly side of themselves to the public. That’s reserved for those they abuse. In fact, being master manipulators, many abusers are devastatingly charming. The only people who really know what goes on in a relationship are the two people in it. Don’t presume to know someone’s private life just because you see them at work every day.
2) The psychological dynamics of domestic abuse are impossible to understand for most of us: No, I don’t know why Janay Rice married Ray Rice. And no, I don’t know why most victims stay with their abusers, or why they often attempt to take the blame for getting the bajeezus beaten out of them. Or why it takes the average victim seven tries before she is finally able to leave her abuser for good.
What I do know is that there is a psychological dynamic that takes place between an abuser and his victim that most of us will never understand. As I said, abusers are master manipulators, and the primary object of their manipulation is their victim. Convincing a victim she’s crazy, that no one will ever believe her, or that she’s a bad mother who will lose custody of her children if she leaves are all classics in the Abuser Playbook. Combine that with the fact that most abusers manage to alienate victims from their friends and family members, and you’re left with a victim who is incredibly vulnerable and unable to see her relationship with her abuser clearly.
We many not understand what goes on in the mind of victim, but we can refrain from judging her for it.
3) Meeting with a victim and her abuser is madness: I’m still flummoxed that someone thought it was a good idea to have Janay Rice talk about her role in getting knocked out in an elevator with her abuser sitting right next to her. What did Goodell expect her to say? She most likely took the blame and asked for leniency for Ray Rice for the same reasons victims decide not to press charges on a regular basis: She has to live with him once she leavesRoger Goodell’s office.
4) By the time a guy is willing to hit a woman in a public setting, he’s done it many times before: It was pretty obvious from Ray Rice’s nonchalance at knocking out his fiance that this isn’t the first time something like this has happened. A wise judge once told me it takes a lot of behind-closed-doors beatings for an abuser to get to the point where he’s comfortable enough to hit his partner in public. Referring to Rice’s actions as a single “mistake” insults our intelligence.
5) Tying punishment to the outcome of court cases is a recipe for failure: As a former criminal defense attorney, I strongly believe in due process and the right of the accused to confront the evidence against him. As someone with experience with domestic violence cases, I think waiting for the outcome of a legal case before imposing punishment on a player is ridiculous. Domestic violence and sexual assault simply are not like other criminal charges, in that victims who have been violated and abused routinely refuse to cooperate with prosecutors for a host of reasons, many of them having nothing to do with the innocence of the accused. Instead of relying on the criminal justice system, which is irretrievably broken when it comes to domestic violence cases, hire an independent investigator to look into the evidence and base your decision on those results. You did it with Ben Roethlisberger. Do it here, too.
While I’m not stupid enough to think the NFL will become a bastion of enlightenment overnight, I am hopeful that things are changing for the better. After all, like I said, I don’t blame those who don’t get it, only those who aren’t willing to learn.