Return to Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault in Sports

Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault in Sports

Domestic Violence

A Reflection of Society’s Dirty Little Secret

Part I

by Sheilla Dingus

November 18, 2016

Déjà vu?

Nearly each week, a new headline surfaces alleging that an athlete has committed an act of domestic violence or sexual assault.  Recent infractions in the NFL such as those involving Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Johnny Manziel and Josh Brown, have placed domestic violence in the glaring spotlight repeatedly, along with questionable practices on the part of the league regarding subsequent investigations and punishment.  Even now the public awaits the result of yet another domestic violence inquiry involving Dallas Cowboys’ stand-out rookie running back Ezekiel Elliot.  In Major League Baseball, Mets closer Jeurys Familia faces likely discipline pending the outcome of a domestic violence arrest in which he’s accused of assaulting his wife.  NBA star Derrick Rose was recently accused in a civil suit of gang rape.  Though found by a jury to be “not liable” which by the way does not necessarily equate to “not guilty,” LAPD confirms that a criminal investigation on the matter is still ongoing; meanwhile the accuser has filed for an appeal of the decision.   On the amateur side, NCAA infractions have become too numerous to count.

This is the first installment of a three-part series which examines crimes against women in the sporting world and beyond. 

We begin with domestic violence, which can be defined as a pattern of abusive behavior in which an aggressor uses physical, sexual, psychological or other types of harm against a current or former partner or family member.  Often abuse is a combination of all three of these actions combined with manipulative tactics designed to control the victim.  While men are occasionally an injured party of domestic crime, women are overwhelmingly, the more common victims.

Studies indicate at least one in four, and perhaps as many as one in three women  have dealt with domestic violence at least once in their lifetime.  Even as domestic violence goes largely unreported, the known instances account for about 20% of all violent crime in the United States.

There is really no typical case of domestic violence, only commonalities that exist within the larger conundrum.  Women who are abused are frequently dependent financially on the abusing partner, thus a decision to report aggression can lead to financial harm not only to the offender, but to the victim as well.  Women in abusive situations find themselves in a dilemma because they are romantically and emotionally attached to the aggressor and a decision not to report abuses is often linked with a hope that perhaps the incident is isolated or the abuser will somehow change.  Not only these factors come into play, but psychology has determined that abusers are generally master manipulators, thus, the victim is held hostage due to threats of violence against other family members and pets, lawsuits that threaten to remove access to children from the victim, and loss of home and financial security, as well as other concerns that may be uniquely relevant only to a specific victim and her abuser.

Assistant District Attorney Kaylin Render, who prosecutes domestic crime in Sullivan County, Tennessee, says that the majority of cases she handles are with lower income families where the woman has few skills and is dependent on her abuser for life’s necessities.  She pointed out, however, that this is not always the case, and that she has prosecuted doctors for abusing their wives in the same manner as more “typical” subjects.  In cases such as these, and I believe wives and partners of professional athletes would qualify, a woman may have a hard time dealing with stepping away from a financially secure lifestyle to a future of unknowns, and secretly bear the abuse as the price she has to pay.

Why are these cases so often mishandled?

This is a matter of timely and important debate, with no clear-cut answers.  In an attempt to dodge criticism of the league’s handling of a number of issues including domestic violence, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stated in BBC interview, “I understand the public’s misunderstanding of those things and how that can be difficult for them to understand how we get to those positions. But those are things that we have to do. I think it’s a lot deeper and a lot more complicated than it appears but it gets a lot of focus.”  It seems that the commissioner is just now beginning to learn what law enforcement, prosecutors, and victims have known for a long time: there aren’t any easy answers and there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.

ADA Render emphasized that the number one priority in any domestic violence investigation or prosecution has to be the safety and well-being of the victim.  This is where I feel the sports leagues and often society tend to fail.

I spoke with veteran Kingsport, Tennessee Police officer Tom Patton in regard to how easy or difficult he feels it is to prosecute domestic abuse, and he said, “If the officer does his job and the victim continues to cooperate, we have a very high success rate in prosecuting domestic violence.”  He explained his rationale in that with most reported cases, law enforcement is called during the altercation when the officer is able to make first-hand assessments of the situation as well as having the opportunity to gather evidence such as photographs of the victim’s injuries.  What Officer Patton described, however is the ideal case scenario, and not necessarily the most common one.  Often a victim will cease to cooperate with authorities for reasons mentioned above, or will seek help after the violent occurrence when injuries are less apparent.  Sometimes the abuse is manifested in threats of harm and manipulation, but the victim lacks physical scars.   Lack of a cut and dry case does not mean, however, that a victim should be abandoned and left alone to fend for herself.

This is an area where I feel the NFL has fallen short.  In the Josh Brown case, Roger Goodell criticized the victim for not cooperating with the NFL investigation, whereas Molly Brown communicated discomfort in dealing with the NFL because she didn’t trust them to look out for her best interest or that of her children.  In that kind of environment, it’s nearly impossible to devise a solution that is beneficial to any party, especially the victim.

Many excuses can be made as we learned from Giants owner John Mara and some of Brown’s teammates.  Josh Brown (and other offenders) often come across as very nice people to their friends, coaches and teammates.  This façade alone should not dictate the thoroughness of an investigation because domestic violence is a targeted aggression and not always apparent to a bystander.  It is not unusual for a domestic offender to channel his aggression and frustration to a single entity – that of his partner.  This is a primary reason that anger management counseling is often ineffective.  The aggressor has actually learned quite well how to manage his anger – by saving it up until a time he can release it on his chosen target.  ADA Render is a big proponent of counseling and therapy for a domestic aggressor, but firmly believes it must be centered on specifically addressing the issues which cause the offender to strike out at his partner, and not on general anger management problems.

One is left to speculate as to why the NFL has been so ineffective in investigating domestic violence.  Have they simply been lazy?  Have ulterior motives come into play?  Ben Leber, a former offensive lineman for the San Diego Chargers and Minnesota Vikings recalled that prior to being eligible for the NFL draft, he was very thoroughly investigated by NFL security and based on his experience said, “You can’t believe they’re not connected at every level of law enforcement from around the country on down to the federal government.  If you want to know things, I’m sure they can get them.”

In addition to this, a prominent criminal defense attorney that I spoke with on condition of anonymity related that he’d worked on a case that involved NFL security several years ago.  He described the level of proficiency he observed:

They were former FBI and Secret Service agents. They cultivated relationships with local cops because, obviously, they expect issues locally and want to be proactive. Honestly, I was stunned how wired in to the locals they were. I heard many stories about how much went on that the public never saw because it was all just slicked over immediately. My client’s case also went away without being made public, but it took a while. My experience is that they VERY MUCH know what they are doing when they want to.

Although his dealings with NFL security were a number of years back, he said, he was “aware of nothing that would have changed,” and added, “If anything I think the league and teams have expanded security offices and services.”

This leads one to ask, “Why was an anonymous person with a hotmail account investigating the allegations against Josh Brown?”  And regardless of who handled the investigation, why were they not able to gather the same evidence as a news reporter?  Deadspin’s Diana Moskovitz  calls the league out as she reveals what she was able to determine a month prior to the now famous King County Sheriff’s Office record release:

There is no way of knowing if the NFL got this divorce file; I can only tell you that it is a public record, and was fairly simple to get. I got a copy; the NFL knew the Browns were going through a divorce; Josh Brown told reporters he was divorced back in August.

But even before that, there was very strong evidence of what happened, again provided by Molly Brown to law enforcement, that plenty of reporters got with relative ease. Here is how the documents the NFL apparently couldn’t get have been coming out, at least at my end: When the New York Daily News story broke, I sent in a public records request to the King County Sheriff’s Office. Since then, whenever they have had records to release, they have included me on the list of reporters who get them. Getting the law enforcement documents has mostly been as simple as hitting refresh on my laptop.

So why did the league fail in this relatively simple task?  Was it perhaps because the league sought a pre-determined conclusion and didn’t want to find anything damaging?  Did they want it to just “go away”?  Did political factors come into play as they did during Deflategate?  Without inside information one can only speculate as to why the NFL failed; this is certain, however: the NFL bungled job number one – that of putting the victim first.

A great deal of public outcry regarding the Josh Brown case centers around the fact that the league failed to impose their own baseline domestic violence suspension of six games, as Brown was only initially suspended for one game.  This was justified by the league as taking “mitigating circumstances” into consideration.  What were the mitigating circumstances?  The NFL has never shown any transparency in this regard outside of blaming Molly Brown for non-cooperation.

When additional information from Kings County Sheriff’s Office came to light, Brown was quickly tossed into the football purgatory of the Commissioner’s Exempt List prior to his expulsion from the Giants.  Was this merely a reactionary measure to public outcry?  How does this help Molly Brown, or even help to rehabilitate Josh?  Would the NFL and Giants organization have taken any action at all had the damning documents not been made public?    Goodell and the league have been less than forthcoming in explaining their reasoning, suggesting instead that it is too complicated for the public to understand.

In parts two and three of this series, I’ll delve into the contrasts in handling domestic abuse and sexual assault, explore the challenges these cases present and attempt to make some constructive suggestions as to how leagues – as well as the public can do a better job in dealing with these complex and difficult issues.

Part II: How the Derrick Rose Trial Mirrors Society’s Conceptions of Rape

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Editor at Advocacy for Fairness in Sports | Website

Sheilla Dingus founded Advocacy for Fairness in Sports in October 2016, after a stint with Defenders of the Wall, a New England Patriots based blog where she dived deep into the legal aspects of Deflategate. Along the way, she observed many inequities in sports and felt a need to address some of the under-reported stories in sports law. She draws from her background as a former professional dancer, who like many of the athletes she writes about, took an early retirement due to orthopedic injuries. After a return trip to college she worked for a legal software company, with seven years as a Project Manager and Analyst. She brings her analytical skills to the table in breaking down complex lawsuits, and enjoys pursuing her longtime interest in journalism.

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