Leagues must stand against violence

AP Photo/New York Post/Steven Hirsch

The facts in the Raymond Felton case aren't all known, but his case brings up a moment of opportunity to address a social issue.

There is a video of Ravens running back Ray Rice dragging his unresponsive fiancée out of an Atlantic City elevator on the night he was arrested and charged with simple assault. She was arrested, too, although there is no video that so dramatically shows her actions.

Here's what Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said after Rice's arrest: "I don't know whether a different story is going to come out, the video is what it is. But like I said, until the process runs its course, we as an organization, we will stand down."

Stories of domestic violence involving professional athletes seem ubiquitous:

•  In December 2012, Jovan Belcher murdered Kasandra Perkins, the mother of his child, before shooting himself in the parking lot of the Arrowhead Stadium.

•  South African Olympian Oscar Pistorius is currently standing trial, facing a murder charge in the shooting death of girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.

•  WNBA player Chamique Holdsclaw pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and other charges after she fired a gun into the car of an ex-girlfriend.

•  Former wide receiver Chad Johnson served jail time after he assaulted then-wife Evelyn Lozada, leaving a deep gash across her forehead.

Athletes may not be statistically more likely to commit an act of domestic violence -- or any crime -- than any subset of the population, but that doesn't make these any easier to stomach.

We admire professional athletes; they are strong and often well-compensated. They personify success, rightly or not. So to see an iconic figure like Rice, a Super Bowl winner sprung from the fields of New Rochelle, N.Y., try to solve the puzzle of two motionless legs and an elevator door ready to close -- it's jarring.

Each year, we see the NFL turn pink during October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It has been an important campaign, even though only 8 percent of merchandise proceeds go to breast cancer charities, according to a recent Business Insider breakdown.

It's safe to say that many of us have gotten the message on breast cancer. That knowledge won't go away.

Pro leagues like the NFL could do a lot of good by adopting domestic violence as the next cause.

A national campaign to reduce domestic violence could have a huge impact, because athletes and teams have a unique authority when it comes to the issue, according to David Martin, a Seattle-based prosecutor on the American Bar Association's Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence.

"Domestic violence is a male issue," Martin said. "It's an issue in the criminal justice system where men are responsible for the vast number of cases. ... [Leagues] absolutely have a role to play responding to this issue."

Martin spent some time in the Republic of Georgia, where government officials enlisted the rugby team in a campaign to reduce domestic violence. "These are folks young men look up to, admire and respond to," he said.

Here's how an awareness campaign could make a difference.

Take the illegal gun charges against Knicks guard Raymond Felton. A report by ESPN's Ian Begley details that the court also issued a six-month order of protection for Felton's wife on Tuesday, when he was arraigned. Plenty of talking heads initially speculated that Felton's wife turned the gun in to police to get back at him during an acrimonious divorce.

I want to emphasize that all the facts in the Felton case are not known.

AP Photo

Oscar Pistorius is on trial, facing a murder charge in the shooting death of his girlfriend.

But an awareness campaign would have informed people that the majority of women who are killed by guns each year die at the hand of their domestic partners. The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has put together a fact sheet on some of the more sobering statistics about women, guns and domestic violence. The fact is, women have a statistical reason to be wary of a gun in the hand of an estranged spouse or boyfriend.

There are already some remarkable programs. The Joe Torre Safe at Home Foundation is the result of Torre's own experience witnessing violence as a child. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll is active in Coaching Boys Into Men, which teaches boys to build nonviolent relationships. There are numerous other connections between teams and communities.

There is more to be done.

If professional leagues want to show they are serious about domestic violence, they can increase the discipline for guilty pleas and convictions. Leagues can beef up education about the issue when rookies come in. They can remind fans that women don't "deserve" to be hit, which was a refrain after Lozada was injured.

There is real awareness to be had on this issue.

Or we could just watch as another athlete's mug shot appears on TMZ, followed by the carefully worded team responses about monitoring the charges and waiting for the legal process to play out.

No one wants to convict the innocent -- as with Felton, the facts in the Rice case are not fully determined -- but silence isn't the only appropriate response to the cascade of events like this.

The Ravens could include a statement about how seriously their organization takes domestic violence. They could reiterate the disciplinary measures that would accompany a guilty plea or a conviction. They could make a donation to a cause or a shelter to support people in crisis.

If charges against Rice are not pursued, or if he is not convicted, these actions do not reflect on the running back. But a statement like that sends a very different message than Newsome's suggestion that another version of events could come out, or shrugging at the disturbing video with "it is what it is."

The choice is not between premature discipline and inaction. It's only been set up that way.

"Leagues are responding to social issues all the time," Martin said, "whether it be breast cancer or what just happened in Arizona."

Rice, Felton and Pistorius will have their days in court. But since the vast majority of domestic violence incidents go unreported, an awareness campaign about the issue could do real and pervasive good for athletes -- and the fans who admire them.

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