Are Sports Leagues Finally Getting Serious About Domestic Violence?


As said often since the NFL was put on blast for its handling of the Ray Rice ordeal, plenty of us had never actually seen a man strike his significant other outside of movies and television. Though we don’t have to be detectives to conclude that something happened when a sports figure is at least charged in these incidents, it still took the two videos from the now-closed Revel Casino for these allusions to become undeniable facts in relation to Rice.

In the weeks since, not only has the NFL responded to the public clamor, but so have other sporting organizations:

  • In late September, NBA commissioner Adam Silver said that there will be a review of its handling of domestic violence.
  • Major League Baseball will have a change in leadership next year as commissioner Bud Selig will give way to current league COO Rob Manfred. Selig stated that MLB has been forming a stricter policy in dealing with these matters, and Manfred said that he expects there to be an upgraded policy for 2015.
  • The NHL is currently on the hot seat as Los Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov was suspended indefinitely by the league following his recent arrest. The league had something akin to the NFL’s (and Carolina Panthers’) problem with Greg Hardy as Colorado Avalanche goaltender Seymon Varlamov was not disciplined by the league or the team after he was charged with second-degree kidnapping and third-degree assault a year ago.
  • World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) announced an upgrade in its Wellness Policy earlier this week to include both domestic violence and child abuse.

Considering their histories, it’s understandable. You could Google search a specific league and “domestic violence” or any organization not mentioned here and find some sordid stories of disputes gone awry. Yet as with anything else that hits the news cycle, there are probably quite a few sports fans who might see all of this as an overreaction to what the NFL has gone through in 2014.

Because sports news in the last few years has made cynics out of the once naïve and curmudgeons out of the sparsely skeptical, it is very easy to file all of these recent discussions under “CYA.” Those people may ask if the leaders of these organizations are being real leaders as their positions demand, or are they terrified that TMZ or other enterprising media outlets will expose more flaws?

So, with these corrections of sorts taking place, there are some fair questions to be asked and answered going forward.

For starters, what does "zero tolerance" entail here? The WWE specifically used those words, but the wrestling organization actually has an inherent deterrent for those performers to consider; there’s no union. As mentioned by Bill Hanstock for SBNation, the lack of a performers’ union means that the WWE can discipline without pushback, even if there is no conviction. The pro sports leagues would probably love for that kind of unchallenged authority. However, as we know, unions, when empowered, exist for many reasons.

For the leagues with players’ unions, how far should they go in representing a player who stands accused when it comes to a league's or team’s punishment? While the concept of union is to fight for the best interests of its members, when it comes to the gravity of these matters, it’s hard to imagine that some players would be gung-ho about representing someone who allegedly committed such crimes. Add to the concerns of the players who are trying to clear their names after charges were found to be fabricated, as is said to be the case for current free agent and former Minnesota Timberwolves forward Dante Cunningham. How does the union deal with someone trying to get back into the league after being exonerated in the legal system?

Yet, no matter what legal machinations exist now and will be created going forward, there is nothing more powerful than overwhelming public scrutiny and corporate concern. As we learned with the NFL, if consumers and sponsors scream loud and often enough, eventually someone has to listen. It’s incredibly unfortunate that the NFL needed a bit of sponsor hypocrisy to act, but without Budweiser and others expressing their concerns, Roger Goodell wouldn’t have been forced to answer for his questionable judgment in dealing with Rice, Hardy, San Francisco’s Ray McDonald and others.

It seems as if the opinions and questions that surround sports and domestic violence stem from our (ideal) inability to understand how a person can get so angry at a significant other that striking her/him is the immediate reaction. We’ve also tried to wonder how bad does a situation have to get in order for a league or team to act.

The unfortunate truth is that they’ve already seen the worst take place.

The names are made infamous for the worst of reasons. Rae Carruth. Jovan Belcher. Chris Benoit.

Even some of the all-time greats found their names in some commentary as of late, from Jim Brown to Jason Kidd to the late Kirby Puckett.

We don’t even have to look very far when it comes to other sports. Hope Solo felt the heat last month. Floyd Mayweather Jr. felt even more leading up to his rematch with Marcos Maidana. Let’s not forget former MMA fighter War Machine attempted to kill himself a few days ago while awaiting trial for his abuse of Christy Mack.

Thanks to Ray Rice, TMZ and Roger Goodell, sports organizations are being compelled to take hardline approaches to domestic violence or at least appear to do so. Rice and Goodell are now reference points for sports media personalities and case studies for MBA students. However, we will always wonder if these sports organizations have more than statements and promises to offer when the next domestic dispute involving a player, coach or executive goes public.

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