With Ray Rice video, a shift in how America views domestic violence

Public attitudes toward domestic violence have long viewed the issue as a largely private affair. But with the Ray Rice video, a nascent societal shift is gathering steam.

Patrick Semansky/AP/File
Janay Rice (l.) looks on as her husband, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, speaks to the media during a news conference in Owings Mills, Md., in May. A video of Rice knocking out his wife has surfaced, as well as questions about when the NFL first saw it.

Calls on National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell to resign are mounting in response to an Associated Press report that a law enforcement official sent a copy of the video showing Ray Rice assault his then-fiancée to NFL headquarters in April.

Mr. Goodell, who says he did not see the video until this week, announced Wednesday that former FBI director Robert Mueller will investigate how the league handled evidence of claims against Rice.

When the domestic violence incident first surfaced, the only public video showed Mr. Rice dragging Janay Palmer out of an elevator, and the Baltimore Ravens player was given a two-game suspension. The light penalty, and the way some commentators suggested Ms. Palmer was partly to blame, reflected a longstanding societal tolerance of domestic violence as a largely private affair.

But with more graphic video emerging this week, showing Rice punching Palmer and knocking her unconscious in the elevator, the case took a new turn. The Ravens fired Rice, the NFL suspended him indefinitely, and more men have stepped out publicly to say such violence can’t be tolerated.

The controversy has sparked a national dialogue, and could end up accelerating a decades-long shift toward recognizing domestic violence as a crime as harmful to the public as any other type of violence.

“In the last 20 years, the issue of domestic violence has gone from being a private family matter to a public crime that warrants a public solution. That’s enormous progress,” says Kiersten Stewart, director of the Washington public policy office of Futures Without Violence, an advocacy and education group based in San Francisco. “That a team felt they had to release their player because he perpetrated this crime definitely marks that transition.”

Next will come the test of sincerity both for the NFL and for the public. How committed is the NFL to expanding preventive education, and to enforcing the new policies it announced in late August to penalize players for domestic violence? And will the public continue to take a stand against domestic violence even when it comes in cases with no sensational videos?

Even as the Rice scandal unfolded, Ray McDonald of the San Francisco 49ers was allowed to play while the investigation continues related to his arrest on suspicion of domestic violence. That was disappointing, Ms. Stewart says, but “the NFL is not the only institution that has had a problem with violence against women. This is an American problem.”

Yet it’s a problem that the NFL is in a unique position to help solve, says Jackson Katz, co-founder of the Mentors in Violence Prevention program, which has long worked with college and professional athletes to prevent violence against women. Some NFL teams have offered training and brief presentations for their players, but the league “could be doing so much more than they’re doing,” he says.

“Now there’s pressure from the public that didn’t exist before, and maybe they’ll respond to it,” Mr. Katz adds, especially because part of that pressure is coming from men and members of the teams in ways it never has before.

A Canadian football team, the British Columbia Lions, offers an example of how the NFL could leverage its popularity, Katz says. It partnered with the Ending Violence Association of BC to train some top players, create public service announcements, and go into high schools to promote healthy relationships and encourage students to step in if they see signs of disrespect or violence among their peers.

The team’s “Be More Than a Bystander” videos have been viewed more than 100 million times, and the school presentations have reached 45,000 students in 18 months, Katz says. That the team let eight players spent three days in anti-domestic violence training “sends a message to everyone else on that team that if your behavior is not in line with our stand on this, you don’t belong on the team,” Katz says.

Sports teams could also support the scaling up of Coaching Boys Into Men, a research-based prevention program overseen by Futures Without Violence that taps coaches to promote respectful relationships among middle-schoolers and high-schoolers. Many male coaches and athletes are eager to participate because they find violence against women appalling and “they don’t like being labeled as violent thugs,” Stewart says.

It’s key to get at the root of gender stereotypes and societal attitudes about violence to really eliminate domestic violence, Katz and others say. In the long arc of history, it’s relatively recent that the law has not treated women as subordinate to men.

Some have theorized that domestic violence was long seen as a way for men’s violence to be contained in the home and therefore less likely to be a public threat. That can only be combated by not making a distinction between private and public violence against women, even when a victim such as Janay Rice pleads for the matter to be kept private, suggests Brian Decker, an attorney in Tucson, Ariz., who researched the issue while a law student at the University of Pennsylvania.

Whether Mr. Goodell is in the best position to lead a shift in the NFL on domestic violence is up for debate as questions swirl about how much he knew about the Rice video when. Some women’s advocates argue that it doesn’t really matter, since the fact of the assault should have been enough for stiffer penalties, even without a video.

Calls for Goodell to consider resigning have come from various corners, including the National Organization for Women and members of Congress. “We believe it’s time for the NFL, as a cultural force and league of role models, to make drastic changes to address a culture of ambivalence towards violence against women,” said Shaunna Thomas, co-founder of the women's group Ultraviolet, in a statement Wednesday night. “Goodell must resign, and the NFL must redouble it’s commitment to end this violence,” she added.

Whoever is at the helm, if the NFL does decide to become a leading voice against domestic violence, it will be joining a wave of progress in which the rate of incidents has declined dramatically.

Twenty years ago this week, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act, which prompted police and prosecutors to understand domestic violence better and treat it more seriously. In the media, the issue began to be more recognized as a violent crime. “More than anything, it took the courage of survivors to speak out; that’s who deserves credit for the change,” Stewart says.

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