SHOCKED! When I listened to ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith on Friday July 25th say over and over that women -- like Baltimore Ravens Ray Rice's now-wife Janay Palmer -- may be responsible for the violence perpetuated against them by their boyfriends, significant others and even husbands, I was nearly speechless.
While not a new phenomenon, violence by athletes is a reoccurring problem in the National Football League, governed by Commissioner Roger S. Goodell. Under his watch not only domestic violence but all manner of violence has spiraled out of control Including but not limited to murder, DUIs, deliberate headbutts on the field and of course violence against women.
This blog is concerned only with the debacle ensuing from the assault by Ray Rice against his then fiancé Janay Palmer that took place in a Atlantic City casino. Rice knocked out Janay Palmer and was caught on camera dragging her from the elevator.
Moving slowly, the NFL and Baltimore Ravens PR machines kicked in to soften the incident by pointing out that Rice is a good guy. Head Coach John Harbaugh, could not say it enough that he (and the team) supports Rice as he struggles through the tough times of public scrutiny of his violent act against the woman who he quickly married after the incident in Atlantic City, Janay Palmer.
On Thursday July 24th, Yahoo Sports reported that Commissioner Goodell had issued a suspension of Rice for two games and fined him $529,411.24.
WHAT? Yes, a two-game suspension for violence against a female (a felony) while pot smokers in the NFL (and there are a lot of them) have been suspended for up to a year.
What this all boils down to is disrespect for female victims and what makes it even worse is the fact that among men, and African American men in particular, playing football in the NFL or doing sports talk on ESPN, FOX etc., almost to a person NONE have stepped up to raise questions about Rice's behavior in the first place but also the lenient punishment of Rice by the NFL. The only exception I can note is those appearing on the ESPN The Sports Reporters which aired on Sunday, July 27th, in which White men, Mitch Albom and Mike Lupica, called out not only Rice and Roger Goodell, but the entire NFL for failing to take violence against women seriously.
This was an exception. ESPN was unwilling to take a stand on violence against women by calling out or in any way penalizing Stephen A. Smith for his highly offensive, victim-blaming comments. ESPN's only action was to "require" Smith to apologize on his show First Take on Monday, July 28th. Watching the apology was perhaps more painful than watching Smith's original statements. It was insincere. And we learned later that it was pre-taped. Smith may have grown up with violence, but he clearly doesn't understand the role that men play in perpetrating it and the role that men should have to stand up against it and sanction each other when it occurs.
While a different type of violence against women, though closely related, let me turn to the rationale of why Black men may not speak out (like NFL players and ESPN analysts): According to a blog from the site run by Duke University's so-called New Black Man entitled "Rape, A Loaded Issue for Black Men" by Byron Hurt, he says:
One of the most stressful and challenging conflicts that affect me during a rape case occurs when the alleged perpetrator is a Black man. As one of many Black males who consistently speaks out against all forms of violence against girls and women, I'm always torn and somewhat hesitant to take a strong stance or make an early rush to judgment.
The pushback that I receive from other Black men can be swift and strong. .... [This] makes it difficult for many Black men to believe allegations of rape, especially when the victim is White.
Hence, Black men may be reluctant to step up and/or speak out when it is a Black man who has perpetuated the violence against a female.
And the silence is wrong no matter the history of past oppression from Whites against Blacks.
It is a sports culture built around masculinity that has run amok, so out of control that allows for and defends Ray Rice's assaults, Stephen A. Smith's blame of women, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's two-game punishment. Condoning this violence is what we get when the masculinity culture is allowed/allows itself to run out of control.
Even after all the social media eruption over the two-game penalty, it is disheartening to hear from NFL senior vice president of labor policy Adolpho Birch who strongly disagreed recently that the NFL two-game suspension of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for his domestic violence arrest was too light.
Men who are comfortable in their own skin, men who are comfortable with their own masculinity are not afraid to take on other men, especially those cowards who choose to rape and beat their wives, girlfriends, and partners.
Imagine the universe in which African American men, like Smith, called out their "brother" Ray Rice instead of defending his actions?
That is the universe I want to nurture and that is why I, as an African American man, stand up against all violence against women and challenge all men to stand with me, including those in the NFL.
Earl Smith, Ph.D. is that author of nine books, including Race, Sport and the American Dream (2014) and The Social Dynamics of Family Violence (2012). He researches, writes and teaches regularly about violence against women.