This week has been a heavy one for the sports world. Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson is selling his team after an email reflecting his disdain for black fans became public. Celebrated former Duke basketball star Danny Ferry’s boy-next-door image was shattered after he was found to have made disparaging remarks about small forward Luol Deng’s African heritage in the front office. The Ravens axed superstar running back Ray Rice after TMZ released footage of the tape where Rice decked his then-girlfriend Janay Palmer during an argument in an elevator. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is now backpedaling on why he only suspended Rice for two games, even though he and the NFL insist they never saw the entire tape of what transpired on the elevator.
The Rice story has been so pervasive in the media that folks have all but forgotten that storied South African Paralympian Oscar Pistorius will learn his fate on Sept 11 for killing his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp in a domestic violence incident.
Once again the topic of domestic violence and sports have come barreling to television and computer screens, mobile phones and social media networks. The Ray Rice and Oscar Pistorius incidents are giving us yet another opportunity to discuss the problem of violence against women in society in general and violence against women in sports specifically and yet we continue to participate in the same ritual that ensures that these horrific incidents won’t be isolated, but will remain the status quo.
One only has to look at social media, visit the water cooler or visit a bar to hear people defend the actions of a professional athlete, that can bench press 500 pounds, literally “Steeling” his wife in the face. Folks want to split hairs about whether it was the punch that knocked her out or hitting her head on the railing. Many believe that Janay Palmer Rice’s behavior that night, charging at and then spitting on her then-boyfriend justifies his “dropping” her like a bad habit. Apparently Palmer Rice also believes this tomfoolery.
Interestingly enough the same has happened with Pistorius. Folks have used his troubled childhood as a reason for his violent temper towards women. They’ve suggested that his physical challenge, which he overcame to become one of the most celebrated athletes in modern sports, caused him to lash out at others. Media has run headlines stating that “Pistorius is heartbroken over killing Steenkamp.” I suppose the fact that Steenkamp’s heart is no longer beating doesn’t qualify for being heartbroken. There is even a website “Support for Oscar” dedicated to Pistorius, a man who shot his girlfriend four times through a closed door and released a statement on the anniversary of her death, much to the chagrin of her family. The description reads, “Oscar Pistorius – athlete, ambassador, inspiration – innocent until proven guilty” yet leaves off batterer and killer as descriptors.
Therein lies the problem – the willingness of people to pick and choose who and what matters and when in the world of sports. Pistorius’ supporters obviously care more about sports than they care about the life of Steenkamp or the other intimate partners he terrorized. Intimate partner violence, domestic violence – whatever term you want to use – is not handled swiftly or judiciously by the NFL, NCAA, sports team owners, the media or friends and families of the perpetrators, because a Super Bowl ring or Olympic gold medal literally has more value than the life of a wife or significant other. The pervasive idea that the wives and girlfriends of professional athletes only matter because of their association with said high profile athlete proves just that. The women apparently don’t have lives, desires, wants, successes, education, businesses, plans, goals or objectives other than being Mrs. Sports Superstar. This way of thinking is not surprising.
Throughout the world, women’s bodies have been historically policed, devalued, used, violated and discarded for the purposes of literally building and supporting major industries (plantations, sex work, media), so is it a wonder that violence against women is overlooked when it comes to the sports industry? Whenever women’s bodies intersect with dominant cultural industries, like sports, it never bodes well for the woman. While many think of sports as merely entertainment, the precarious treatment of women, tells us otherwise. Clearly Title IX exists for a reason.
Each year, billions upon billions of dollars are spent worldwide on the category of sports, from amateur to professional athletes to little leagues throughout the world. Sports enthusiasts relish feel good stories like Chicago’s Jackie Robinson West team winning the World Series, soccer goalie Tim Howard becoming an international superstar, tennis legend Serena Williams overcoming injuries and taking home her 18th singles grand slam title and Serge Ibaka using his fame and fortune to help children in The Republic of the Congo, his homeland, to name a few.
In the same ways that these stories deserve our admiration and support, stories of domestic abuse deserve our ire. We need to require more of these billionaire sports owners, ridiculously empowered sports commissioners like Goodell, and of course millionaire players, some of whom are speaking out against Rice’s actions.
Sports resonate with so many people because we actually see ourselves in the players, the competition, the wins and the losses. If ever there is a loss, then domestic violence is one of them.
Ray Rice and Oscar Pistorius are bound by high-profile domestic violence incidents – both ended with the loss of a career; one ended with the loss of a woman’s life. How many more times are we going to watch this happen and have the same tired, discussion about who is to blame instead of what’s to blame and fixing the problem? The tie that binds Rice and Pistorius is more than domestic violence. It is the ways in which sports and media culture work together to ensure that perpetrators of violence like Rice and Pistorius are seen as victims, while the real victims like Palmer Rice and Steenkamp are victimized over and over again.
This post was written by Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is founder & editor-in-chief of The Burton Wire, an award-winning news site that covers news of the African Diaspora. Follow her on Twitter @Ntellectual or @TheBurtonWire.