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Athletes and domestic violence

October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. TrueHoop reader Mike Stephenson works in that field, at a non-profit in Minneapolis. Over the summer when there were some reports of athletes being involved in such incidents, he e-mailed me the following:

I've spent the last five years managing communications for a non-profit in Minneapolis that specializes in domestic violence prevention and services. During my tenure I've interviewed many women and men who have experienced or witnessed violence. And while their stories of trauma are always heartbreaking, it motivates me to work harder at raising public awareness. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of my job is generating media interest around the issue. It's very much a social taboo, considered a "behind-closed-doors" problem, and, given its staggering prevalence in our country, is generally ignored by mainstream news outlets. Except, of course, in high profile cases featuring extreme violence, celebrities or athletes.

Most recently, incidents involving Matt Barnes, Lance Stephenson and Floyd Mayweather have made headlines. Jay Mariotti's arrest has also been garnering plenty of buzz. The general public's response to these sorts of stories is one of shock and disgust. The latter is an understandable reaction, intimate partner violence is a terrible thing. But that it happens in celebrity or athlete relationships should come as no surprise. And I'm not suggesting that fame and fortune turn people into egomaniacal monsters that believe they are above the law or entitled to violent behavior. My point is actually quite the opposite. They're normal people trying to lead normal lives, battling many of the same stressors that millions of other Americans face on a daily basis.

Stress leads to violence. And whether you're making seven dollars an hour or seven million a year, how you handle the compounding stressors in your everyday life will affect your ability to maintain healthy relationships.

Professional athletes are often broadly categorized as either uneducated hooligans or invincible superheroes. Both assumptions are obviously unfair. There are outliers, and living in the spotlight means much of what they do will be streamed live on the web or tweeted in real time. But we're discussing a very small percentage of the population. There are countless doctors, plumbers, school teachers and accountants committing acts of violence that we don't read about in the newspaper. The stat that most find unbelievable is that one in three people will experience domestic violence during their lifetime (according to the United States Office of Justice Programs). Believe me, if you haven't encountered it in your own life, you know someone who has.

Athletes are people first. They deserve the same opportunities to atone for their mistakes and move on with their lives. It'd be nice if an NBA player used their influence to take a strong public stance against domestic violence, and I'm sure there are players who feel passionately about it, but we as fans don't get to hear enough about the good being done across the league. We are more likely to stumble across the story of an arrest following a domestic incident, which only succeeds to perpetuate stereotypes surrounding athletes and the issue itself.

There is no excuse for violence. But in the field, we do everything we can to understand what drives people to this kind of behavior. And we realize that working with both sides of the equation, victims and individuals who have been abusive, is necessary to build stronger, healthier communities. Athletes and airline pilots alike need to recognize that there are resources available to help. Domestic violence knows no bounds of race, religion, age, gender or socioeconomic status.

Until we're able to speak openly about the issue, and focus on real change, it will be impossible to interrupt the cycle.