As May 2 draws closer, hype for the long-awaited face-off between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, Jr. is reaching fever pitch.
But a few key voices in sports media have refused to get caught in the tsunami of excitement surrounding the match, instead calling for a boycott of the fight in protest of Mr. Mayweather’s history of domestic violence.
Their dissent raises important questions about gray areas in sports and entertainment. When, for instance, does watching a sports event become a way of condoning violence and injustice? Do audiences and fans have an obligation to take a stand against these issues when their favorite celebrity athletes are involved, or are affairs of morality and crime outside the scope of a good game, match-up, or draft pick?
For ESPN commentator Keith Olbermann, such questions are critical when fans decide which athletes to watch and support. In Mayweather’s case, he said, “The choices are about where we as sports fans, where we as human beings, draw the line about domestic violence in this country.”
A history of violence
Accusations of domestic abuse have dogged Mayweather for over a decade. One instance involving a fight with two women at a Las Vegas nightclub led to a conviction in 2004.
He also served two months of a 90-day sentence in a Nevada county jail after pleading guilty in 2011 to “reduced domestic battery charges stemming from a hair-pulling, arm-twisting attack on his former girlfriend, Josie Harris, while two of their three children watched,” The Associated Press reported.
All in all, Mayweather has been convicted five times since 2001, according to last week’s episode of ESPN’s investigative series, “Outside the Lines.”
It’s this history that has some critics cringing from any show of support for the celebrated boxer – even if it involves cheering on his opponent.
“[I]n theory it should be a treat to throw down $99 and root like hell for Pacquiao to do to Floyd Mayweather what Mayweather’s done to so many women,” sports journalist Melissa Jacobs wrote for The Guardian. “But Mayweather’s not just someone who’s made a few mistakes. Boxing [sic] biggest star is so much worse than a sports villain. He’s a real villain.”
Olbermann is less circumspect: “You will support this excuse for a man?” he asked during an episode of his late-night program last week. “You will help him continue to behave as if his conduct is acceptable in the 21st century, or the 20th, or the 19th? I won’t. I regret this deeply.”
Then there’s the matter of the money. Billed as “The Fight of the Century,” the Pacquiao-Mayweather bout is expected to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars in ticket and pay-per-view sales. And win or lose, each fighter is set to take home well over $100 million, “about double the biggest previous boxing payout,” according to The New York Times.
“I met Manny Pacquiao last year, and a quieter, more respectful, more dignified boxer I’ve never encountered,” Olbermann said. “May he make millions more, but I will not give Floyd Mayweather a dime.” (It’s worth noting that Pacquiao is no angel; the boxer has been fighting both the IRS and tax authorities in his home country of the Philippines, and, before turning to God and the Bible, had a tumultuous marriage marred by gambling and infidelity.)
Critics have also pointed out that Mayweather has never been sanctioned by boxing officials in relation to any of his domestic violence cases – an issue that reporter John Barr raised with the Nevada State Athletic Commission’s (NSAV) Pat Lundvall in last week’s “Outside the Lines.”
“Do I think that domestic violence is a very serious issue? Absolutely,” said Ms. Lundvall, who was part of the five-person panel that issued Mayweather a boxing license before he served his jail sentence. “[But] Mr. Mayweather was punished by the criminal justice system. He served his punishment. He paid his debt to society.”
To be fair, it’s not just Mayweather or boxing. According to a 2010 Harvard study:
[D]omestic violence has been largely ignored by professional sports leagues. This inaction persists despite the fact that a survey revealed seventy six percent of U.S. adults and eighty-two percent of teens think it is “bad for society” to allow athletes to continue their sports careers when convicted of a violent crime.
Only fourteen percent of adults and teens think allowing athletes to go unpunished is “good because it shows people deserve a second chance.”
What broke it open for the NFL was Ray Rice, who last year was caught on camera knocking out his fiancée in an elevator. The league’s officials suspended Mr. Rice indefinitely, though the former Baltimore Ravens running back has since publicly apologized and won an appeal to lift the suspension.
To its credit, the NFL has taken steps to combat domestic violence in its ranks. Late last year, officials instituted a new personal conduct policy that holds players accountable for their deeds (or misdeeds) even before they join the league and establishes standards of behavior for all NFL employees. The league has also hired a disciplinary officer as special counsel on issues regarding violent behavior.
But critics have noted that such a response came only after security footage surfaced that showed Rice punching a woman.
“The Ravens were forced to take action against Rice because his attack was right there on tape for all to see,” ESPN reporter Sarah Spain wrote last year. “The message, then, is that domestic violence is an issue only if the act is captured on tape.”
Ms. Spain added:
Somehow, hearing an account of Mayweather's history of abuse, even in detail, hasn't been enough to turn public opinion against the fighter in the same way.
How can one watch him box without picturing his fists pummeling not his opponent, but a defenseless woman? How can one acknowledge his fighting prowess without wondering how many women have fallen victim to it outside the ring?