Janay Palmer’s unconscious body was dragged through the Atlantic City casino. Tattered and torn, her hair in a fray, makeup running down her bruised cheeks, the fallen angel’s bloody knees stained the sky blue carpet. Standing over her, overcome with impulsive rage, was her now-husband, former Ravens running back Ray Rice. It’s hard to fly again with broken wings. In a subsequent blizzard — nix that — nightmare for PR, this single event of domestic violence hurt the NFL’s credibility, tarnished the reputations of both Ray Rice and commissioner Roger Goodell. It also reminded us of the all too common violent off the field behavior of athletes. I’m of the mindset that at our core we use sports as a catharsis of sorts, but this idea becomes harder to support when heroic athletes become anti-heroes.
Fast-forward to last week: former first overall pick and Heisman winner Jameis Winston was at the center of an alleged rape suit from a 2012 incident. Florida State University settled the case out of court by paying $950,000 to the woman who accused Winston of sexual assault. This was reported by NPR as a way to “move forward” rather than an admission of any wrongdoing.
“The Title IX lawsuit alleged that university officials concealed and obstructed the sexual assault investigation so that Mr. Winston could play football for more than two years afterwards,” as per a statement from the defendant’s lawyer.
By no means am I accusing Winston of any wrongdoing — however we’ve seen patterns of violent behavior by male athletes — oftentimes at the expense of women. Manny Ramirez, Kobe Bryant, Leroy Hill, Jason Kidd and Mike Tyson are all in the infamous group of alleged violence towards women in my lifetime. For each respective case the men were reprimanded in some sort of way, and their legacies were tarnished. Perhaps that is a sufficient enough consequence, as it seems that monetary or verbal penalties are not a good deterrent for domestic abuse.
A FiveThirtyEight study implied that NFL players have higher arrest rates for domestic violence than compared to men in similar income levels. While this is not conclusive evidence by any means, it seems as if these men are above the law, and it begs the question: At what point do we see these athletes for who they are as people, and not for who they are on the field? Had Jameis Winston not been a gifted athlete, I firmly believe that FSU would have launched a more in-depth investigation. It’s telling that FSU chose to delay any investigation and finally settled the suit once Winston was in the NFL. Superhuman athletic ability may wow people, but it does not negate the fact that these men must act in accordance with the rest of civilized society — and be properly punished when appropriate.
Part of the catharsis of sports is our ability to share intense emotion with the athletes playing the game. We feel the extremes of disappointment and euphoria, and we admire the sportspeople who play with said emotion. But maybe it’s this intense emotion that leads some athletes to make violent off-field decisions.
Michael Vick’s treatment of dogs started a larger conversation on animal abuse. Len Bias’ cocaine overdose led to a change in the way the United States viewed drug abuse. Jerry Sandusky’s actions brought child abuse to the forefront of sports and non-sport discussion. O.J.’s trial brought domestic violence with athletes to the public’s attention but that was overshadowed by a larger conversation on race relations, as per the opinion of ESPN writer Richard Lapchick and myself. Violence against children and animals is a heinous act, and the perpetrators have been disciplined, vilified and etched in stone as synonymous with evil. The period of complacency towards athletes who abuse women has gone on far too long. It is time for these violent offenders to join the Hall of Infamy with all those we choose to erase from our memory.