Domestic Violence in the NFL

Most of you, at least in the United States, are aware of the highly publicized domestic violence incidents involving NFL football players Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens and Ray McDonald of the San Francisco Forty-Niners.   Both cases have drawn attention to the very serious problem of domestic violence. What can we learn from these cases, as concerned citizens and as providers of perpetrator treatment programs?   We can start by recognizing that while domestic violence is not always taken as seriously as it should, and victims not always sufficiently protected, it is nonetheless a complex problem and should not be reduced to easy stereotypes.

The respective football teams, and the NFL league office, were widely faulted for not responding appropriately.  In the Ray Rice case, people wanted to know why a man who knocked out his girlfriend, Janay, was only suspended for two games.  In the Ray McDonald case, there were calls for his suspension by San Francisco sports writers and victim advocates, despite the fact that Mr. McDonald was never charged with a crime, because initial reports indicated that his girlfriend has suffered “visible injuries.”

We know that Ray Rice, as shown in that elevator video, punched his girlfriend so hard that she was rendered unconscious.  We also know that he did so after she tried to hit him, as is also evident from that video.  There is no question that his response was grossly out of proportion to the threat posed, and he clearly the dominant aggressor in that incident, for which he rightfully deserved to be arrested.  So, let’s imagine that Ray Rice was referred to you for counseling, and let’s imagine you could use whatever intervention approach you thought would work best, to make sure that he never again assaulted his girlfriend.  What would you do?  The consensus among victim advocates interviewed by the media was that these men (Ray Rice in particular) are typical batterers who use violence as a means to dominate and control their partners.  I have not read or heard any specific suggestions on what intervention, aside from incarceration, would be appropriate in each case, but I am fairly certain that victim advocates would want for these men to complete a batter intervention perpetrator program.  They would most certainly strongly oppose any suggestions that the female partners should also join a batterer intervention or anger management program, or participate in couples counseling, because this would, in their view, be “victim blaming.”  Here is all that we know about the Ray Rice incident, from media reports:

  • In their hotel room, Ray and Janay had both been drinking, and at some point Janay tried to forcibly take his cell phone from him.
  • He responded by spitting at her.
  • She then responded by slapping him.
  • Later, in the elevator, Janay attempted to physically strike him.
  • He responded by punching her and knocking her out.
  • Janay says that this was the first time that either of them ever used physical force on the other.

It is possible that Janay was minimizing Ray’s violence and that he had in fact assaulted her in the past.  It is equally possible that she, too, had assaulted him previously.  But if we take her at her word, then the facts indicate that this was a classic case of a mutually-escalated conflict, in which both partners contributed to the escalation.  This does not mean in any way that Janay “deserved” to be knocked out.  Ray Rice should have been mandated to attend a batterer intervention program.  However, we don’t know whether Ray Rice’s violence was intended to “send a message” to Janay that he is in charge of the relationship and that she had better not ever challenge his authority, or whether he came from an abusive background and when threatened with physical violence by Janay, and being under the influence of alcohol, reflexively struck out.  If Ray’s violence was more instrumental than expressive, then I would insist that he attend a lengthier course of batterer intervention, and perhaps also participate in intensive individual therapy.  Either way, however, I would treat both partners, because both need to learn ways to better manage their anger and resolve their conflicts peacefully.  I would also recommend that they each undergo a thorough substance abuse assessment.

Do you agree?

Now, with respect to the Ray McDonald case, here is what the Deputy District Attorney concluded, after looking at all of the evidence, as reported in ESPN NFL (Online):  “Conflicting versions of the event, a lack of verifiable eyewitnesses and a significant lack of cooperation from Jane Doe; we cannot prove a crime occurred,” said Lindsay Walsh, Santa Clara Deputy District Attorney in charge of the case. (my italics).

“Both Jane Doe and McDonald agree that Jane Doe struck first,” according to the memo. “Jane Doe said it was a single push. McDonald said Jane Doe hit him multiple times with a closed fist. … [McDonald had no visible injuries or complaints of pain.] McDonald grabbed Jane Doe’s arms to restrain her, resulting in visible injury.”

According to the San Francisco Chronicle (November 10, 2014:  In late May, officials said, officers went to the residence to deal with an altercation in which McDonald and his fiancée had an argument involving a gun. McDonald called police, and, at the time, denied that she ever pointed the firearm at him or fired it. During the investigation into the domestic violence incident, however, McDonald changed his story, saying his fiancée fired the gun into the ground as he drove away, prosecutors said.

So, there was insufficient evidence to charge Ray McDonald with a crime.  In retrospect, although he was subsequently accused of sexual assault (in another case), the Forty-Niners made the right call in not suspending him from the team and waiting instead to hear from the District Attorney’s office.  But is it in fact true that a crime did not occur?  The same girlfriend who admitted to initiating a physical assault on Ray McDonald, for which he had to defend himself by grabbing her by the wrists, had previously fired a gun in his presence.  It troubles me that the District Attorney chose to ignore this evidence.  Do you think she should have been charged?  And would you have a different view if he were to be charged and found guilty of sexual assault?

Your thoughts?