Let’s just get into it: Sports culture is replete with narratives about high-profile athletes beating up women, whether it be their wives, fiancées or girlfriends. In the NFL, the “domestic violence rate among players is much higher than for similarly compensated professionals in other fields,” writes the Chicago Tribune’s Stephen Carter. This isn’t surprising when you remember Ray Rice, Greg Hardy and, most recently, Kareem Hunt.
On Nov. 30, Hunt was cut by the Kansas City Chiefs after a video was released by TMZ Sports showing him physically attacking a young woman during an altercation at a Cleveland hotel.
The dispute occurred during the offseason and, despite the fact that cross complaints were filed, no charges were filed at the time. In addition, according to Vice Sports’ Britni De La Cretaz, although the NFL launched its own investigation, the league never made an effort to properly interview Hunt or the 19-year-old woman he assaulted. Instead, the Chiefs chose to take the star running back “at his word when he told them he never left his hotel room and that he ‘didn’t do a thing.’”
Ultimately, it was only after the publication of the video, which shows that Hunt blatantly lied to the Chiefs, that they released him. In fact, according to De La Cretaz, in a “statement announcing his release, Kansas City made clear that this was not a situation in which 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.”
In addition, when the Chiefs addressed the incident back in August, CEO Clark Hunt told The Kansas City Star: “They’re not always going to make the best decisions…Kareem is a young man, second year in the league, obviously had a very big year on the field last year. I’m sure he learned some lessons this offseason and hopefully won’t be in those kind of situations in the future.”
Statement from the Kansas City Chiefs on Kareem Hunt
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) December 1, 2018
As De La Cretaz explains, these kinds of statements feed into the athlete-redemption narrative and do nothing to actually address the problem of domestic abuse in sports. All they do is tell the world that these men have simply made mistakes and deserve second chances. However, as she points out, these are “mistakes which came at the expense of women’s well-being.”
Four months after Baltimore Ravens star running back Ray Rice was indicted on third-degree aggravated assault for knocking his then-fiancée Janay Palmer unconscious in March 2014, the NFL suspended him for only the first two games of the 2014 season.
Initially, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell defended his decision to suspend Rice for two games.
“He is a young man that really understands the mistake he made and he is out and about and determined to make a positive difference,” Goodell said at the beginning of August 2014.
It wasn’t until the end of that month—and after months of criticism for Rice’s measly two-game suspension—that Goodell held a press conference announcing a new league policy on domestic violence, which included longer suspensions for players in the future.
Answering to the criticism in a letter to team owners, Goodell also admitted: “My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families…I didn’t get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.”
In September later that year, TMZ’s release of video footage that captured Rice viciously punching Palmer then dragging her unconscious body out of an elevator was enough to reignite criticism that Rice’s initial suspension had not been a severe enough penalty and the NFL needed to do more.
During a subsequent CBS News interview, Goodell responded by claiming that no one in the league had seen the video before Rice’s two-game suspension. A day later, the Associated Press published a report that a copy of the tape had been sent to a league official several months earlier.
Ultimately, the Ravens terminated Rice’s contract and the league suspended him indefinitely.
On Sept. 14 of that same year, the Carolina Panthers placed defensive end Greg Hardy on its inactive list after he was convicted of choking and threatening to kill his then-girlfriend Nicole Holder in July. Despite the conviction, however, Hardy was never actually suspended by the NFL and went on to sign with the Dallas Cowboys in the offseason.
The Chiefs’ decision to release Hunt points to progress when it comes to how league officials handle domestic abuse and physical assault against women, (which, as Deadspin’s Diane Moskovitz explains in the article “Sportswriters Are Too Outraged By Kareem Hunt To Bother To Learn What Domestic Violence Is” are two separate issues).
But the NFL still has a way to go before it can successfully establish itself as an organization that condemns violence of any kind toward women.
So far, what we’ve seen instead is inconsistency, lenient punishments and delayed reactions prompted by bad press and the release of overwhelming evidence.
In fact, in the case of Reuben Foster, the athlete-redemption narrative persists. After he had been released by the San Francisco 49ers following a domestic violence arrest involving his ex-girlfriend Elissa Ennis, the Washington Redskins claimed the star linebacker on waivers.
Although he is currently on the Commissioner’s Exempt list, which keeps him from practicing or playing until his legal case is resolved, Foster is still being paid a contract worth more than 9 million dollars.
According to De La Cretaz, Senior Vice President of Player Personnel Doug 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:”
In an interview on Good Morning America on Thursday, Ennis said the Redskins’ decision to pick up Foster felt like a “slap in the face.”
She also claimed that the 49ers organization tried to discredit her story by telling police she had lied about Foster abusing her before.
“I felt like they didn’t believe me,” Ennis says. “Even when I called the police, the 49ers came up there—I have pictures of the 49ers coming up there, trying to talk to the police and say I’m the same ex-girlfriend that [sat] up there and lied.”
Essentially, as De La Cretaz says, these kinds of reactions from league officials following domestic abuse incidents prove that “sports still care more about winning than it does about women” and that “men are still more able to empathize with men who have committed violence than they are with the women who have experienced it.”
“We continue to see allegations of NFL players committing acts of domestic violence,” wrote Deborah Epstein, a professor of law and co-director of the Georgetown University Law Center’s Domestic Violence Clinic, in the Washington Post.
“Last spring, at least a half-dozen new players were invited to join NFL teams even as they were facing outstanding court cases based on alleged physical or sexual assaults, many committed against intimate partners. The Cincinnati Bengals drafted running back Joe Mixon, despite publicly available video footage of Mixon punching a woman so hard at a restaurant that four bones in her face were broken. This year, the Cleveland Browns drafted Antonio Callaway, who faced sexual assault allegations at the University of Florida.”
In May, Epstein resigned from the NFL Players Association’s commission on domestic violence along with Susan Else, former president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, according to the article, “I’m Done Helping the NFL Players Association Pay Lip Service to Domestic Violence Prevention”
“I simply cannot continue to be part of a body that exists in name only,” she said.
Something has to give. We can’t keep pretending that we care about the safety of women, only to turn around and support the men who hurt them.
Survivors and current victims alike are watching. They see the way those in power belittle domestic violence cases and offer second chances and excuses for abusers. They’re not fooled by public statements released by league officials only after PR crises. Eventually, NFL team owners, coaches and players need to acknowledge that domestic abuse is a major problem within their organizations and decide what’s more important: saving face and winning games or ensuring an end to this culture of violence toward women.