Domestic violence is unconscionable. It is horrifying. Because it’s almost unfathomable to accept the brutality of such acts, society often dismisses and rationalizes abuse. We say the victim must have done something to get the aggressor mad. We say, just maybe, the woman had it coming. She was egging him on. She was disrespectful. She…she…
And, just like that, we blame the victim.
This is exactly what happened when Ray Rice was caught on video brutally beating his then-fiancé, Janay, knocking her unconscious and dragging her from an elevator. The incident was made public and the inevitable -- and painfully predictable -- questions commenced.
What did Janay do to provoke Ray Rice? (The subtext: It must have been something awful, or the beloved Rice wouldn’t have knocked her out.)
Was this a one-time occurrence? (The subtext: Surely this was the lone incident, because someone of Ray Rice’s character and decency wouldn’t routinely hit his girlfriend.)
People had strong enough public opinions that the Ravens and the NFL were forced to take action. Baltimore released Rice and the NFL permanently banned him from playing in the league.
This week, however, the NFL was ordered to vacate the suspension by a U.S. district judge, thereby allowing Rice to immediately resume his NFL career. Not a day later, Janay Rice appeared on The Today Show and told Matt Lauer that, before the now-infamous May 23 press conference, the Ravens asked her to apologize for her part in the incident.
Let’s state that again: The Baltimore Ravens, an NFL franchise worth $1.5 billion, asked a 26-year-old woman to publicly apologize for being knocked unconscious, then dragged from an elevator.
If that’s not bad enough, Janay Rice told Lauer the Ravens gave her a “general script” to use in her statement. The words she uttered that day: “I do deeply regret the role that I played in the incident that night, but I can say that I am happy that we continue to work through it together, and we are continuing to strengthen our relationship and our marriage and do what we have to do for not only ourselves collectively, but individually, and working on being better parents for Rayven and continue to be good role models for the community like we were doing before this.”
At best, the apology is disturbing and startling. At worst, it’s disgusting, horrifying, indicting of a team and an athlete-worshiping society. Working through an abusive relationship is difficult. The victim must deal with guilt, shame, anger and grief. But, in the heat of the moment, Janay was forced to become responsible for improving the Ravens’ image as well as Ray’s.
But this isn’t just about the Ravens. It’s about how, when it comes to domestic abuse, our go-to response is blaming the victim. A day after the press conference, Ray Rice’s attorney, Michael Diamondstein repeatedly emphasized on a radio show that it was hypothetically possible Janay hit first -- as if this were a reasonable explanation for his actions.
Furthermore, Rice’s pre-trial intervention program included the stipulation that Ray be in counseling with Janay. Think about that -- imagine a rape victim being required to go into counseling with the rapist to lighten the rapist’s sentence. If Ray stays out of trouble, the entire incident would be expunged from his record. Like it never happened.
So why are do so many seem to feel comfortable blaming Janay and almost excusing her husband? Is it because her apology allows us to move on? Is it because of an internal fear that if Janay did nothing wrong and she was so brutally beaten, then we are all vulnerable? Or is it because it allows us to once again turn on our televisions Sunday afternoon and feel good about watching a game lathered in off-the-field violence? I’m not entirely sure.
But what if our response was different? What if society fully supported Janay by sending her the message that you don’t have to put on a brave face and go along with the NFL spin machine? What if Ray was not given a rare opportunity of a pretrial diversion program and was forced to do hard time for his assault? What if the very powerful Ravens and NFL took this opportunity to make real changes in the way they deal with abusers among them? What if the NFL team handlers stopped protecting abusers and started holding them accountable?
If all of that happened then victims wouldn’t be forced to apologize or enter counseling with their abuser to keep him out of jail. More women would be able to stand up to abuse. They would get out of the relationship at the first sign, and they could receive appropriate counseling to understand all aspects of the abusive relationship.
That would be far more impressive than the appalling responses from the NFL, Ravens, New Jersey prosecutor, Ray’s attorney, and so much of the public.
Catherine Pearlman is a social worker and an assistant professor of social work at Brandman University. She is the founder of The Family Coach, a business that specializes in helping families resolve everyday problems. Follow her on Twitter @thefamilycoach.