(WOMENSENEWS)–Following the abuse allegations against several National Football League players, many discussions focused on the question of why women stay in abusive relationships, but few were about why men use violence.
This October, Domestic Violence Awareness Month, is a good moment to examine why Ravens’ Ray Rice and Vikings’ Adrian Peterson and others like them choose violence and how the NFL and similar institutions contribute to their violent behavior.
Rice was videotaped knocking his fiancé unconscious in an elevator and Peterson hit his 4-year-old with a tree branch often and severely enough to injure the boy’s body. Abuse allegations against NFL players Ray McDonald and Greg Hardy also surfaced.
Certainly professional athletes are not alone in committing violence against women and children. Perpetrators come from all walks of life and all over the globe.
Studies indicate that violent behaviors are learned from parents, peers, media and the society-at-large.
People use violence to feel powerful and in control. The behavior gets strengthened when it works without any repercussions.
Over time, batterers come to believe that their aggression is justified and that they are entitled to hit their partners and children. “She is mine” is a loaded phrase when uttered by a batterer. His sense of ownership prods him to show who is in charge. Punching one’s fiancé in an elevator with a video camera, as Rice did, is a perfect example of the perpetrators’ sense of entitlement and invincibility.
And feeling invincible comes easy in the world of organized sports, the NFL or National Basketball League, where men of immense physical strength are hired to do a job in which aggression is sanctioned and cheered.
We relish watching these towering men colliding with each other, week after week. Add to their physique, their youth (the players named above are mostly in their 20s), an adoring fan base and millions in pay, and one has the right formula for cultivating an exaggerated sense of entitlement that is at the core of family violence.
Simultaneously, the world of organized sports has features reminiscent of the slavery era. Remember Los Angeles Clippers’ owner Donald Sterling’s racist remarks? Josh Levin in April wrote on Slate.com: “There is a dark side to [the] owner-player relationship…an uncomfortable truth . . . A white plutocrat like . . . Donald Sterling doesn’t just own a basketball team. He owns the black players who suit up for that team, too.”
Black or white, all players are owned by a wealthy few who get richer off of them.
The players can be fired, sold or traded by their owners based on performance, and they are expected to use and abuse their bodies for entertainment. Tony Schwartz quotes former NFL player Nate Jackson in The New York Times saying: “I can’t feel a thing. My body is a machine and my emotions are dead.”
In a vital difference from slavery, however, many athletes emerge from this transaction as multi-millionaires, which helps explain why they endure this outdated hierarchy.
I can only speculate that the image of being owned by a wealthier elite must make some players want to strike out and hurt someone.
This is not to say that players are not responsible for assaulting their spouses and children. They most certainly are. However, taking responsibility would mean looking inward and admitting to oneself that “I am a batterer,” which batterers seldom do. Instead, they find excuses and external reasons for their behaviors. Wives, girlfriends and children become perfect targets of this externalization. This pattern of displacing responsibility for one’s action is reinforced when team owners exploit them on one hand and then, on the other, fail to hold them accountable.
In response to the public outcry that Rice and Peterson were not swiftly and adequately punished by the league for their crimes, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell proclaimed: “I got it wrong…I am sorry…now I will get it right.”
Will he? Remedies outlined by the NFL–strict conduct policies, advocacy and education –-are mere Band-Aids for an institution that purposefully cultivates aggression for profit.
These measures will hardly make an impact on men whose job it is to “tak[e] a man down mentally and physically,” as noted by retired linebacker Ray Lewis.
The NFL’s assets are $10 billion. Goodell earned $44 million in 2013. With financial stakes so high, the league is unlikely to enforce drastic measures that will lower on-field aggression. Child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence will continue to plague the NFL. If we object to any of this, we should just stop watching.
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