The sad story of National Football League star Ray Rice and his deplorable assault on his then-fiance-and-now-wife continued to unfold Monday when full video of him savagely punching her unconscious in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino was released to the public. Rice’s gutless act cost him his job with the Baltimore Ravens (who cut him from the team hours after the new video footage came out) and perhaps his NFL career altogether (the league suspended him indefinitely after initially bungling the situation badly by suspending him just two games in late July). But the issues the case brings to light – domestic abuse, victim-blaming, and a professional sports league more concerned with churning out product than the human beings behind the product – aren’t going to be solved simply because one man wound up with a small measure of the punishment he was long past due to receive.
No, if we’re truly outraged about the pathetic sight of a man driving his fist into a defenseless woman’s face, we all need to do more. All public figures should use their platform to decry the destruction wrought by those who believe it’s fine to lay their hands on a spouse because of some warped perception of what love is. And all sports organizations profiting from a system that pushes their athletes as role models ought to be making as strong a condemnation as possible of that attitude – and taking immediate measures to ensure they handle future cases of domestic violence far better than the NFL did.
Yes, I’m looking at you, NHL. Not with an accusatory eye – indeed, Gary Bettman’s league should be commended for the strong position it’s assumed on social justice issues including homophobia in sport – but with a plea for proactivity. The NHL can take a stand here as well and show its fans domestic violence can never and will never be tolerated.
That process can start with something as easy (and yet important) as a public service campaign featuring NHL players speaking out in the clearest and most passionate terms, imparting a crucial message to young boys who idolize them and providing words of support for women who’ve been affected by the issue. But their help can go beyond that: the league can get behind battered women’s shelters and support systems; conduct domestic violence awareness training for its players; and even address domestic violence against men.
Besides, it’s not as if the NHL has been immune to this issue. Just last season, Avalanche goalie Semyon Varlamov was charged in a domestic violence dispute Colorado prosecutors eventually dropped the charges, but as soon as the charges were laid, the same type of victim-blaming we’ve seen in the Rice case was applied to Varlamov’s girlfriend – and not just by your garden-variety anonymous internet cowards and lowlifes: former NHL star Ilya Kovalchuk accused her of concocting the accusations in order to get an American work visa.
Kovalchuk had no evidence to suggest Varlamov's girlfriend was falsely accusing him in some grotesque extortion plot, but he went ahead and floated the idea anyway. His point of view is repellent, to say the least, but it illustrates perfectly that for some sorry individuals, the default attitude toward women who come forward with harrowing stories of abuse is to assume the women themselves are the perpetrators of a crime.
This is just one of many signs we've got a long ways to go before we afford women the basic respects and rights they deserve.
The You Can Play Project, and the NHL by extension, has succeeded in their mandate in part because they’ve done a masterful job of humanizing gay athletes. And a hockey-related campaign against domestic violence could do just as well by mirroring their approach. We need to understand that women who are being attacked are our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our friends. That the grand majority of women who talk about being attacked aren't liars trying to get a green card. That the fact they don't leave their abusers doesn't make them complicit in the abuse. If they can help promote those messages – just as they have with You Can Play to ensure every dressing room is a safe and welcoming place for all players – NHLers will effect real and meaningful change.
It should not have taken camera footage of Ray Rice to stir the proper amount of outrage in us and trigger his firing. And it shouldn’t take a domestic violence scandal involving an NHL player for the league and its players to do more to acknowledge an issue that is pervasive, corrosive and detrimental to us all.