Tonight, a football game will be played between two teams in the National Football League. The Baltimore Ravens will face off against the Pittsburgh Steelers. It will be televised to millions of fans. Rihanna has agreed to sing the opening song.*
We know that Ray Rice, star running back for the Baltimore Ravens, physically assaulted his then-fiancée Janay Palmer. We know that Rihanna was physically assaulted by Chris Brown. We know that Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault on three separate occasions. We know that current Raven Terrell Suggs was accused of physical abuse numerous times by his longtime girlfriend, including punching her in the neck, dragging her alongside a speeding car, and kicking her in the face so hard her nose broke—all of those incidents with their two young children present.
We know that this is too much to bear. Not as women. As humans.
We know that today is the anniversary of a terrible day in our country’s history. We know that everyone grieves differently, that some people prefer to do their grieving publicly, while others prefer to do so privately. We know that our nation’s response to a series of terrible things happening was to become wildly patriotic, and to share those expressions of patriotism as loudly and publicly as possible.
We know that during tonight’s football game, patriotism will be invoked in a mixture of direct and subtle ways. Like any good marketing campaign, it will be pounded into our brains that to love football is to love America. Because not loving America is inherently wrong, we will be shown, not loving football is not only un-American, it’s practically indicative of treason. Count how many times you see the American flag on television tonight, if you watch. If you can stomach it.
We knew months ago that a) Janay Palmer walked into an elevator of her own accord and b) was dragged out unconscious less than a minute later by the only other occupant of that elevator, a man who makes millions of dollars per year using his brute strength and talent to excel at one of the most violent sports on earth. We knew because there was video of their entrance and exit. We knew because Ray Rice admitted to police, to the NFL, to the public, that he’d hit his fiancée.
We know how Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner, responded to that video of the couple entering the elevator arguing, followed by footage of Ray Race dragging a woman’s lifeless body out of the elevator. He responded by suspending him from his job for two games. Roger Goodell watched Ray Rice use the toe of his sneakers to shove his woman where he wanted her to go, not caring that her dress was hiked up around her waist and that the lower half of her body was exposed. He watched them walk into the elevator together and then he watched an NFL player drag an unconscious woman out of it, and he gave that man a gentle but loving timeout of two games away from his prestigious job.
We know that pundits and apologists said, “We can’t know what happened in that elevator. Both people said they were at fault. She even said she hit him first.”
We can’t know what happened inside that elevator, they said.
Except that we did know. Long before the second video was released, we did know. We just didn’t want to know.
We know that the Baltimore Ravens’ response to this controversy was to stand by their man. Their coach used words like “proud” and “respect” to describe Ray Rice after the first video came out and the two-game suspension was announced. They hosted a press conference in which Janay Palmer apologized for her actions—i.e., for getting punched in the face, drawing all that negative attention, putting her husband’s career in jeopardy. They live-tweeted her apology, which they’ve since deleted.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh: “I stand behind Ray. He’s a heck of a guy. He’s done everything right since. He makes a mistake, alright? He’s going to have to pay a consequence. I think that’s good for kids to understand it works that way. That’s how it works, that’s how it should be.”
We know that when Ray Rice returned from his two-game suspension, Baltimore fans gave him a standing ovation. They held up signs indicating their support and they cheered, stomped, waved and they stood by their man, and who could blame them, because so did she. She stood by her man, and because we’re too ignorant and simplistic to try to understand why, so did we. We did nothing.
In the time since the second video was leaked by TMZ (seemingly the new arbiters of justice and morality in the United States), we know that not only did the police see the full video—inside and outside the elevator—but so did various people within the prosecutor’s office and the judge presiding over the case. All of those people saw both videos before they allowed Rice to enter a pre-trial diversion program that would, after a year, expunge the third-degree aggravated assault charge from his record. One might wonder what that legal mumbo-jumbo means, what Rice’s punishment was for punching out his fiancée, but you might already have guessed. He’s required to attend counseling.
Let me repeat: when TMZ released the second video to the public, when we watched Ray Rice deliver a sick hook to his partner’s face, we weren’t the first people to see it. A long line of people, representatives of the legal system we rely on to deliver justice, allowed the incident to be swept under the rug, minimized, expunged.
We don’t know if the NFL saw the video at the same time as casino security and the police and the prosecutors’ office and the judge saw it. We don’t know for sure, except that we feel certain that an organization that made SIX BILLION DOLLARS last year in revenue and doesn’t pay taxes like other companies of its size because they are registered as a 501(c)6 could have and would have obtained the tape as soon as Ray Rice was taken to a police station. Now the AP is reporting that not only was the tape mailed to and received by the NFL, but that someone at the NFL offices confirmed watching it, and said via voicemail: “You’re right. It’s terrible.” AP has a law enforcement officer on record who swears that the tape was sent to the league offices & who was able to play them the voicemail as proof. We know that whether or not they saw the second tape is basically irrelevant, because they’ve admitted they saw the first tape, and as previously discussed, 1 + 1= 2.
We know that every October, the NFL makes a huge deal out of Breast Cancer Awareness, as if there were a single person in the United States who wasn’t aware of the disease. We know that of the proceeds from all the pink jerseys and pink footballs and other pink merchandise that the NFL sells during the month, under the banner of “raising awareness,” that only 8% of those proceeds actually go toward breast cancer research.
We know that October also happens to be Domestic Violence Awareness month. We know that we can support and respect both causes, since each problem hugely impacts women’s lives and those of their families. But if we’re honest, we also know that Breast Cancer Awareness makes for better television. It’s cheerful and pink and comes with cheeky slogans & puns about boobies. Domestic violence is complicated and insidious, and the person who suffers most is often unable to recognize the source of their suffering. They don’t see their abuser as a cancer, and no one can make them, and that’s difficult for the public to understand. It’s simpler to wave pink flags and talk about how great boobs are.
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) define intimate partner violence as “a serious, preventable public health problem that affects millions of Americans.” We know that the definition of intimate partner violence includes physical violence, sexual violence, threats of physical/sexual violence, and psychological/emotional abuse.
We know that in one of Ben Roethlisberger’s incidents, in this instance for which he was never formally charged, he entered a side room of a bar/club with a young woman at around 2 a.m. after hours of heavy drinking, then followed her into a restroom and closed the door. We know that when the girls’ friends tried to follow and check on her, worried that she was too intoxicated or that she might not be safe locked in a room with a man she’d just met that night, Roethlisberger’s bodyguards refused to let anyone pass or to knock on the door.
We know that in our culture, that what happened in that room after what all parties described above came down to a “he said, she said.” We know that in our culture, we’re not supposed to make a big fuss, because he was never actually charged with a crime.
We know that for a rapist, any rapist, to be charged with a crime, the girl in question has to give up everything about her life as she knows it. She has to surrender to a process she has almost zero control over. Every aspect of her life becomes public. She has to recite what happened over and over and over, often to people who aren’t trained in how to handle sexual assault cases. She has to allow her life to become public, her name and age and face plastered in the media, whether local or national. She implicitly agrees, through the process of trying to attain some semblance of legal justice while having no guarantee of a positive outcome, to have her appearance and what she was wearing and whether she’d had something to drink become water cooler conversation and tabloid fodder. She has to know that if she pursues charges, her sexual history and family history and mental health history will suddenly become topics open for public discussion. The burden of proof rests on her shoulders.
We know that nearly all of those same things apply to domestic violence victims. Rihanna’s bruises were photographed and published and widely discussed. Strangers have scolded Janay Palmer on Twitter for marrying the man who hit her. We ask the woman if she told him to stop. We ask the woman why she didn’t leave. We ask her why she returned to someone who hit her. We ask her what she did to provoke him, or what she could have done to avoid provoking him. We require everything of her: explanation, disclosure, proof, and complete vulnerability to a public she usually has no interest in discussing her life with.
I know that “physically assaulted” sounds clinical, that it doesn’t truly convey the horror of the situation. The truth is that one of the most elite athletes in the world, a 200+ lb. man who can bench press 400 lbs., punched an unarmed woman so hard that he knocked her out cold. We know that when he struck her with his fist, her head slammed into the metal railing of the elevator, bounced off, and we know that she slumped to the ground unconscious. We know that because we watched the video.
We know that the video made us sick, and that we had known it would make us sick, and we watched it anyway. We watched Janay Palmer slowly regain consciousness and imagined the range of emotions she felt as she woke up to strangers staring at her, strangers knowing that her fiancée hit her, while the fiancée who hit her stood tall and dared her with his presence to say anything that would upset him, anything that would jeopardize his precious career.
I know that I cried near the end of the video, as yet another casino employee approaches. Instead of staring at Palmer like the others, she kneels, puts an arm around her, appears to offer words of comfort, helps Palmer stand up. All I know is that this tiny act of compassion—which there’s no way to know if Palmer even wanted—stands out as a beacon of humanity against the ugliness of what we see in that video, ugliness that is enacted every day in millions of homes where it isn’t captured on video for the public to gasp at and condemn.
Around 27 million people watched last week’s NFL season opener. Tonight, many millions of people will watch two football teams play each other in a game. One team will win, one team will lose. People will be entertained. Images of patriotism and masculinity will rule the day.
I know that I won’t be watching tonight. I don’t know if I’ll watch this weekend or next week and I don’t know if I’ll give up watching football for good. I know that I criticize hypocrisy in others, yet I’m a feminist who continues to watch a sport that has demonstrated over and over and over again the myriad ways in which it does not care about or respect women. I hate knowing that if I watch any games for the remainder of the season, I’m implicitly and explicitly condoning any number of terrible things that I want no part of, and that the same goes for my participation in fantasy football.
I don’t know what comes next. All I know is that I can’t bear to watch a flag-waving invocation of September 11, carefully calibrated to exact minimum grief and maximum pride, while an abused woman sings a song to kick off a night of controlled violence for entertainment between two organizations who’ve hired, developed, stood by and bailed out players whose actions are so abhorrent that they actually make me sick to my stomach. I can’t bear to hear the announcers gloss over it and make small talk so that the public can feel okay about watching. I can’t do it, and honestly, I hope you can’t either. I wish this game would earn the lowest TV ratings in NFL history and that not a single fan would show up to the stadium. Of course I know that won’t happen, and so do you. But I’m going to enact my small, meaningless protest anyway. I have no choice but to turn away.
* Update: CBS realized the problem with featuring Rihanna and they’re pulling her pre-recorded segment this week. They’re replacing it with a discussion of the Ray Rice situation, between CBS anchor Norah O’ Donnell and Thursday night football host James Brown.
“Two years ago I challenged the NFL community and all men to seriously confront the problem of domestic violence, especially coming on the heels of the murder-suicide of Kansas City Chiefs football player Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins. Yet, here we are again dealing with the same issue of violence against women.
Now let’s be clear, this problem is bigger than football. There has been, appropriately so, intense and widespread outrage following the release of the video showing what happened inside the elevator at the casino. But wouldn’t it be productive if this collective outrage, as my colleagues have said, could be channelled to truly hear and address the long-suffering cries for help by so many women? And as they said, do something about it? Like an on-going education of men about what healthy, respectful manhood is all about.
And it starts with how we view women. Our language is important. For instance, when a guy says, ‘you throw the ball like a girl’ or ‘you’re a little sissy,’ it reflects an attitude that devalues women and attitudes will eventually manifest in some fashion. Women have been at the forefront in the domestic violence awareness and prevention arena. And whether Janay Rice considers herself a victim or not, millions of women in this country are.
Consider this: According to domestic violence experts, more than three women per day lose their lives at the hands of their partners. That means that since the night of February 15th in Atlantic City more than 600 women have died.
So this is yet another call to men to stand up and take responsibility for their thoughts, their words, their deeds, and as Deion [Sanders] says, to give help or to get help, because our silence is deafening and deadly.”