Making Excuses for Brutality: The Alarming Responses to Ray Rice’s Violence

Our nation’s domestic violence problem has been featured in the news quite a bit this week after Baltimore Raven’s running back Ray Rice was suspended by the National Football League for a mere two games after knocking his then fiancé, now wife, Janay Palmer unconscious in an Atlantic City casino elevator. TMZ obtained security camera footage of Rice carelessly dragging her immobile body from the elevator doors, and it subsequently went viral. The NFL’s dainty punishment can only be described as absolutely and entirely horrifying. I would think that everyone would agree. I would be wrong. ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith suggested that domestic violence victims should educate themselves “about the elements of provocation” and because Rice’s fiancé had “provoked” him, he asserts, “It’s not about him then, it’s about you.” Goodness gracious, surely no one thought he was making any sense at all in saying that her tragic beating was her own damn fault? Wrong again. Whoopi Goldberg’s diatribe on “The View” communicated the message that if only women would learn to stop hitting men, we wouldn’t be having these problems. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the age old dilemma of intimate partner violence has been solved. It was the woman all along! I suppose it’s high time we pack up the office.

In all seriousness though, the way that our society is so quick to blame the victim, even in the most severe cases of abuse is demonstrative of the problematic way that domestic violence is perceived. Why would victims come forward, stand up for themselves, and experience the trauma all over again if only to be told, “You provoked this.”? The honest truth is that they wouldn’t and they don’t. Belying all evidence to the contrary, we continue to believe that domestic violence remains a crime that happens to invisible people. In a Huffington Post poll asking whether Goldberg’s remarks were accurate, the current standings are 80% yes and only 20% no.

Let’s take a closer look at our culprits of these detrimental paradigms.

The NFL:

Only two games. Though it is indeed difficult to watch, I implore everyone to take a close look at the TMZ clip again. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has suspended players for longer periods of time for DUIs and illegal tattoos. Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon is currently appealing a full year suspension for recreational marijuana use. Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis will sit out four games for taking illegal fertility drugs while trying to have a child with his wife. Again, Rice will sit for just two games. The National Football League’s actions have exemplified a stance that domestic violence is neither an egregious offense nor is preventing it a priority. Adding insult to injury, NFL officials have since issued statements acclaiming Rice as an upstanding man, assuring the fans that he just made a “one-time” mistake and is now back on the right track. A recent poll reports that 64% of Americans watch NFL Football; 73% of men, 55% of women. In an organization with that sort of breadth and reach, their response is nothing short of unacceptable.  We have to hold the NFL responsible for the role it is playing to belittle violence. Goodell and the NFL are implicitly approving domestic violence. And players certainly are not the only ones hearing that message.

Stephen A. Smith:

“Let’s make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions.” Perhaps the worst part of Smith’s rant is the way in which he positions himself as a valiant defender of the women’s rights cause because he was raised by women. That does nothing to silence the crystal clear message that Rice’s fiancé was at least partially responsible for her assault. The way things are now, we teach girls a host of methods, tips and tricks to avoid assault, rape, and abuse but we spend considerable less time telling boys not to assault, rape, and abuse women. In a lackluster, prerecorded apology, Smith states, “My words came across that it is somehow a woman’s fault. This is not my intent. It is not what I was trying to say.” Legal analyst Mel Robbins offered an amazing reality check on CNN asserting, “In 2012, guys, Smith said the exact same thing regarding Chad Johnson. He used the words — in an incident with Chad Johnson, where Chad Johnson was accused of kicking his wife in the head that we got to look at provocation here and he said he was sick and tired of men being vilified, and ESPN did nothing and it flew under the radar screen….And here’s the other thing: He may have apologized, but it was pre-taped, and nothing says sincere like a pre-taped apology. And instead of having a bigger conversation about it — like, okay, wait a minute, you didn’t get to say what you meant? What did you mean exactly by that?”  It is truly unfortunate that misogynistic views like Smith’s are carelessly broadcasted over the airways.

Whoopi Goldberg:

Even after Stephen A. Smith was (rightly) suspended from ESPN for the week, Whoopi Goldberg defended Smith’s statements proclaiming that because Janay hit Rice first, she could expect nothing other than the treatment she received. She states, “If you hit somebody, you cannot be sure you are not going to get hit back… you have to teach women; do not live with this idea that men have this chivalry thing still with them. Don’t assume that’s still in place. So don’t be surprised if you hit a man and he hits you back.” What Goldberg does not acknowledge however, is the massive power disparity between the running back and his petite fiancé. Women indeed are not entitled to hit men under any circumstance aside from self-defense, but to say that she should not be surprised by what happened? The woman was struck by a blow so hard that she lost consciousness. And further, though her cohosts do reproach Goldberg for her statements, at the end of the segment, Sherri Shepard proclaims, “This is the one thing I don’t understand about Ray Rice’s wife: He knocked you out and pulled you out the elevator and you still married this man…” In essence, why doesn’t she just leave him? Definitely not looking in the right direction here.  At the point of physical abuse, emotional and verbal manipulation have usually already cast feelings of fear and guilt upon a victim. Many desperately want the abuse to end, but not the relationship. And if an abuser is promising to change, and the victim loves the abuser, then it is hard to walk away.

What’s really going on here?

Victim blaming. Why on earth are we so inclined to look for reasons why Palmer was probably asking for it? That Rice is a nice man who was simply provoked by his petite fiancé’s slap. In Ann Jones’ “Next Time She’ll Be Dead,” she articulately describes this practice:

“Popular discourse…fills our minds with prefabricated phrases, exonerating the abuser and blaming the victim. We understand that he was under ‘stress’ of one sort or another, while she was emasculating, cold, provocative, self-destructive, hysterical, masochistic, and free to leave. Although many people now agree in principle that it’s wrong to hit women, many of us also seem to believe that under certain circumstances it’s almost bound to happen. And those circumstances are so elastic that in effect almost every abused woman gets blamed…. And whether we blame battered women or pity them for their plight, we tend to think of them as a kind of pariah group, rather like prostitutes, who apparently choose to live “abnormal” and dangerous lives because of some peculiar kinks of background or personality. (After all, we think, she could leave.) Knowing public attitudes, abused women often keep silent out of shame and fear of being blamed, thereby appearing to acquiesce to violence. But if the abused woman appears complicit, so do we; making excuses for the abuser in this case, blaming the victim in that case, we approve violence. Is it any wonder then that battering continues?”

According to Smith and Goldberg, Palmer was bound to be assaulted by Rice because she provoked him, because she was violent first, and he must not have been that bad, because she stayed, didn’t she? These attitudes are far too common.

And lest we forget, charming Ray Rice, who is not behind bars, nor was he behind bars yesterday, nor will he be behind bars tomorrow. Despite being indicted for the assault by a grand jury, Rice will not be charged, nor will he pay a criminal fine, and his record will be expunged. In other words, he got off scot-free in the eyes of the law even though there was an enormous amount of tangible evidence.  Perhaps most alarming of all is Rice’s response. In a statement, he says, profusely minimizing the incident, “I failed in many ways. But Janay and I have learned from this.” I don’t know what his victim could have learned other than to fear her husband, but the media response carries many salient lessons that we certainly can learn from. The most apparent? We provide no shortage of excuses for abusers and accusations of victims.  How can we ever expect domestic violence to stop if we don’t advocate for those suffering from it? To quote Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.”