ray rice stephen a smith

(left) Baltimore Ravens runningback Ray Rice and Stephen A. Smith

Last week, there was a great deal of debate regarding the NFL’s treatment of Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens star running back.  Last February, Rice was captured on a surveillance camera dragging his then fiancé, Janay Palmer, out of an elevator, after knocking her unconscious following a dispute. 

After a televised public apology by Rice, anger management classes, his marriage to Palmer, and a months-long NFL investigation, the league’s Commissioner Roger Goodell handed Rice a two-game suspension.  The response to Goodell’s long-awaited decision was swift: sports reporters, bloggers, and social media pundits sharply criticized the suspension as too lenient, often pointing to NFL players who have recently been given longer suspensions for violations of the NFL’s drug policy. 

But following Thursday’s broadcast of ESPN’s First Take, another controversy surrounding Rice’s behavior developed. Stephen A. Smith, the colorful and loquacious co-host, objected to men’s violence against women, but suggested that women should learn “the elements of provocation” to help prevent men from hitting them. 

Smith’s comments drew the ire of one of ESPN’s female hosts, Michele Beadle, who tweeted:

So I was just forced to watch this morning's First Take. A) I'll never feel clean again B) I'm now aware that I can provoke my own beating.

She then followed up with this tweet: 

I'm thinking about wearing a miniskirt this weekend...I'd hate to think what I'd be asking for by doing so, @stephenasmith. #dontprovoke

Smith has gone on record denouncing Rice’s behavior and domestic violence in general.  In responding to Beard’s comments, he sent several tweets and a longer statement reiterating that he stands against violence against women. He retreated slightly and said he does not believe that women provoke men into violence. He also addressed the controversy with an apology on Monday morning's show. However, Smith’s original comments implying that some women provoke men, speaks to a widely-held belief system shared by millions of guys around the world.

As a filmmaker, gender violence prevention educator, and anti-sexist activist with more than 20 years of experience, I have been in male-only rooms with tens of thousands of boys and men discussing physical and sexual violence.  I have facilitated countless conversations with guys from various racial and cultural backgrounds.  I’ve trained men in high profiled Division I sports programs, the U.S. military, fraternity houses, and on college campuses.  I have to tell you, Stephen A. Smith touched on something very real.   His comments are in accordance with what most men believe about gender violence.  

I have to tell you, Stephen A. Smith touched on something very real. His comments are in accordance with what most men believe about gender violence.

Unfortunately, many men (and women for that matter) believe that a major, undiscussed, component to male violence against women is the issue of provocation – the idea that women intentionally trigger men to hit them.  Men strongly believe that if women just stayed in their place –kept their mouths shut, modified their behavior, and kept their hands to themselves, relational disputes like Ray Rice’s would not occur. 

A large number of the men I’ve talked to believe that men act violently toward women because they often say and do things that make men “lose control.”  I’ve heard this a million times.  This belief often takes center stage during my conversations with boys and men about physical or sexual violence.  No matter how often I try to change the paradigm and focus on men’s role in perpetuating gender-based violence, men continually attempt to deflect the issue and shift blame and responsibility onto girls and women.  This deflection never fails.  Men create excuses for their abusive behavior and deny women’s victimhood.  It is a predictable, and frankly, widespread truth.  We men have great difficulty being self-critical and holding ourselves accountable for our violent rages and rampant misogyny.  Not having to examine our own behavior is one of the benefits that comes along with male privilege.

Fortunately, not all men think this way.  I also hear the voices of boys and men who disagree with men who have traditional views about women.  There are guys in our culture who understand that – short of life threatening circumstances – there is no justification for hitting girls or women, regardless of the female’s actions.  But those progressive male voices often get drowned out by louder, more prominent and powerful men, who reinforce the idea that women are to blame for just about everything – including gender-based violence.

When these kind of conversations arise, I point out how power dynamics play a huge role in how men think, feel, and act. I have found it helpful to use sports analogies that men can easily relate to so they can quickly put men’s violence into perspective. Did any players on the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team physically confront owner Donald Sterling for his racist comments about black people? Weren’t Sterling’s comments “provocative?”

I often remind guys that coaches and owners have the unique ability to push every button imaginable to motivate their players - without provoking male athletes to violence.  Some coaches, like former Rutgers basketball coach, Mike Rice, who was caught on tape abusing his players, take things too far.  Coach Rice poked, prodded, taunted, screamed, swore at, pushed, intimidated, manipulated, embarrassed, and used misogynist and homophobic slurs in an effort to motivate his players to play at the highest level possible. These actions would provoke most men to retaliate with violence.  Other coaches shame players into thinking they are not good, fast, strong, smart, disciplined, or talented enough to compete on the field.  Players generally accept this behavior from coaches with little resistance.

As a former college quarterback, I have had my fair share of verbally abusive coaches. I’ve also had coaches who I wanted to knock out and drag across the turf.  But I didn’t, mostly because I knew better.  Over the course of Ray Rice’s heralded football career, I am sure he has had similar experiences and desires.  Coaches repeatedly say and do things that make us mad.  I’ve even seen coaches physically assault bigger and stronger players, but I’ve never seen a player strike back by hitting his coach. Why not?

With the rare exception of former NBA player Latrelle Sprewell, who received a 68-game suspension in 1997 for choking PJ Carlismo, his head coach, most athletes learn to control their emotions and behavior in the face of provocation.  Ray Rice does not have a history of violence, which means he has the ability to restrain himself. To my knowledge, he has never hit another player, coach, or owner after being provoked.  He knows better.

What distinguishes coach-player relationships and male-female relationships is power---and control.  Coaches clearly have power and control over their players.  The power and control coaches wield over players goes unchallenged, preventing athletes from knocking them out cold.  Players respect and understand that any public displays of physical violence against their coaches or owners will cost them big time, just like Latrelle Sprewell.  They will lose their scholarship, be suspended, severely fined, or cut.  Players are aware of these consequences, and therefore, they control their behavior, and act accordingly.   In other words, they keep their cool.

In male-female relationships, however, the power dynamics are much different.  Boys and men are taught the opposite about who controls the relationship.  We are socialized to believe that men are superior and are supposed to reign over girl’s and women’s bodies.  We are taught that men have more power than girls and women, not less.  So when a woman usurps our authority by talking back, embarrassing us, showing disrespect, pushing or hitting us, or wounding our egos (especially publicly), we men maintain our control, by using physical and sexual violence. Let me be clear.  We don’t lose our control in the face of women’s provocation, as men like Stephen A. Smith suggest.  We exert our control. 

Commissioner Goodell’s two-game suspension of Ray Rice did nothing to disrupt the power dynamic between his players, and the women they abuse. As a result, he gives NFL players a license to abuse women without fear of severe punishment or reform.  Goodell is well known for enacting extreme punishment to players who break the NFL’s code of conduct. He preaches the importance of character, and reminds players that they have an obligation to “protect the shield.” This time, however, Goodell parted ways with his own moral compass, and protected one of the league’s star players, leaving women feeling unprotected.  His decision last week showed football fans that the consequences of a football player’s misconduct are significantly less when he abuses his girlfriend than when he breaks NFL rules and uses illegal drugs or banned substances.

I’d be curious to see how long it would take for Goodell to come down on a player who struck his coach or team owner, knocking them unconscious.  My gut tells me Goodell would act swiftly, and issue a far longer suspension than the two games he gave Ray Rice.

We’ll never know, though, because the reality is, male athletes, and men in our society, don’t go around knocking out people who have more power and authority than they do. It just doesn’t happen. And that’s because, regardless of the level of