The NFL’s Disgusting Message to Abused Women

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Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP/Corbis

The “incident,” as it’s been called, happened in February. Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice beat up his then-fiancée (now wife) Janay Palmer in a casino elevator. Ray Rice told his teammates, and presumably his bosses, that he knocked her unconscious because he was defending himself. At the time, the Ravens tweeted, “Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident.” Rice was given a two-game suspension. Now, months later, the Ravens have terminated Rice’s contract. What’s changed?

Proof. This week, TMZ posted a security-camera video of the incident titled “ELEVATOR KNOCKOUT.” CNN described it this way: “Rice punches Palmer. Palmer lunges after Rice, and then Rice hits her again and she falls to the floor.” The visible graphic violence spurred the NFL to do what it should have done months ago and ban Ray Rice. Viral video is apparently what it takes for the NFL to care about players who abuse and assault women. Defensive end Greg Hardy was found guilty of beating up his girlfriend in July, and he still plays for the Carolina Panthers. The legal system has nothing on a few minutes of security-camera footage.

I didn’t watch the video, and I won’t link to it because Janay Rice is not the person who made it public. She didn’t want us to see this. The widely circulated “ELEVATOR KNOCKOUT” footage — and Ray Rice being fired from the NFL as a result — doesn’t make her any safer. It doesn’t help her heal. “No one know the pain that the media & unwanted options from the public has caused my family," she wrote on her Instagram account today. "To make us relive a moment in our lives that we regret everyday is a horrible thing." Her words reminded me of Steubenville, and other prominent cases in which photos and videos of sexual assault have been made public and led to prosecutions — and greater awareness of what is often a private crime. But not without emotionally decimating the survivors, who are re-victimized once the photos are made public.

A few years ago, I wrote about Rihanna asking her fans to stop hating on Chris Brown, and how hard it can be to support a woman who, in turn, supports the man who very publicly abused her. In the comments, a woman explained why she returned to her abuser: “People who knew he was abusive asked me why I would go back. My response was always, why not? I felt if no one else cares about my abuse, if everyone thinks he is the victim and asks ‘how long should he be punished,’ then why shouldn't I forgive him?” Collectively, we do a terrible job of letting survivors know we care about them, no matter what they decide. We don’t talk about what it means for a black woman to call the police on a black man. We don’t acknowledge that seeking a protective order can mean putting up with disparaging comments, and that a woman who calls it “abuse” and tries to leave is putting herself in more immediate danger. We don’t talk about the fact that nobody wants to feel like a victim.

This is why it takes video footage to make everyone sit up and take notice. Nobody wants to believe their friend, their teammate, their favorite player, their boyfriend, their husband is an abuser. It’s easier to think, “he has a bad temper” or, “that argument got out of hand” rather than, “This guy abuses his wife.” After he dragged his fiancée from the elevator unconscious, Ray Rice told his teammates that he hit her because he was defending himself. The teammates believed him. It was the easiest option. Tempers and poorly handled arguments can be explained away or selectively ignored as “incidents.” But when Rice’s teammates and bosses at the NFL watched that video, they didn’t see a professional football player defending himself against his much-smaller wife. They saw abuse.

Often it isn’t so clear, even to survivors themselves. The very nature of abuse is that abusers make it tough for victims themselves to identify what's happening. This spring, Rachel Sklar described what it’s like to be on the receiving end of abuse: “It’s anger wrapped in fear, guilt, self-doubt, helplessness, sadness — so you shift from defensive mode into comfort mode, where you are the person who is calm and caring and reassuring. You’re the one who has it together. He’s the one who needs help, and you’re the one who’s helping. You learn to work around his triggers and do the things to soothe him and to leave parties quickly and to pick your battles.” You may break up with him and realize how bad it had gotten and still never label it “abuse.”

In only acting now that the security-camera footage is public, the NFL is setting a disgusting standard. It’s communicating to survivors — and the rest of us — that their testimony is not enough. Their broken bones are not enough. Guilty verdicts are not enough. Anything short of a public spectacle is not enough to make the league and the media sit up and say that assault and abuse are unacceptable. The tacit request is that survivors get comfortable with re-victimization if they want justice. The reaction to the “ELEVATOR KNOCKOUT” video doesn’t prove that the NFL is finally getting tough on domestic abusers. It just confirms survivors’ nagging suspicion that, without a viral video as evidence, it’s not really abuse. It’s just “an incident.”