We need to talk about domestic violence and sports, because as it stands, they are almost inextricably linked.
In the NFL, athletes are less likely to be arrested, but more likely to be arrested for domestic violence than the general public, according to an arrest database compiled by USA Today. Male professional athletes in general, are more likely to be arrested for domestic violence than any other crime, however, the NFL is the only league with these records readily available to the public.
Punishments for athletes convicted of domestic violence are often inconsistent, lenient and subject to change at a moments notice. This is due, in part, to a lack of clear policy in the four major North American sports leagues.
The NFL had no formal policy until 2014 when Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was captured on film dragging an unconscious woman from an elevator. The footage was disturbing, and at the time many people felt that his case was handled poorly (Rice was only suspended for two games before the video was released), which prompted the league to institute a Domestic Violence Policy. As it stands, a six game suspension is league policy for any player who commits an act of domestic violence. The NFL also has the right to add or subtract games from that suspension depending on “mitigating factors”. These factors are rarely explained.
The NBA has a policy that came into effect as of July 2017. The policy states that domestic violence is prohibited regardless of where it occurs. It also outlines a treatment and accountability plan that can include psychological tests, counseling and community service. If a player does not comply with the plan they will be subject to fines and suspensions.
Major League Baseball has had a policy in place since 2015. Their policy holds the Commissioner’s Office responsible for investigating all allegations of domestic violence. There is no minimum or maximum amount of games that a player who commits domestic violence can be suspended for. Players are also required to submit to psychological evaluations, comply with court orders and follow procedures put in place to keep the victim safe. These procedures are often kept confidential, only known by the player, the victim and the Commissioner’s Office. Players are allowed to challenge decisions via an arbitration panel.
The NHL is the only one of these four major sports leagues without a concrete domestic violence policy. This means that they have no precedents or guidelines to follow when one of their players is accused of being a domestic abuser. There are two NHL incidents that come to mind and, when compared, they illustrate how punishments can vary because of this lack of policy.
Slava Voynov was a defensemen for the L.A. Kings until 2014 when he was accused by his wife of spousal abuse. The injuries Voynov’s wife sustained were so brutal and the investigation so telling, that the NHL elected to suspend him indefinitely. Voynov eventually pleaded guilty to misdemeanor spousal abuse, and opted to return to his home country of Russia, rather than go through the deportation process. He has not played in the NHL since, although the Kings still retain his rights.
In July of 2018, Austin Watson, a forward for the Nashville Predators was arrested for hitting his girlfriend. He pled no contest to the charges and was sentenced to three months probation, to complete a program for alcohol and substance abuse, as well as a 26 week intervention program. Watson was initially suspended by the league for 27 games, but had the sentence reduced to 18 games by an independent arbitrator. In contrast, Nate Schmidt was recently suspended 20 games for testing positive for performance enhancing substances. This is not to say that Schmidt shouldn’t have been suspended, but there’s no way to justify his suspension for longer than someone who admitted to domestic abuse.
Problematically, Watson was allowed to dress, skate and participate in the banner raisings that occurred before the Nashville Predators home opener.
It’s a privilege to play professional sports and like it or not, athletes are role models. Children look up to them as an example of what hard work and dedication can earn them. Abusers shouldn’t be allowed to fill that position, it’s not a privilege they should be granted.
Two players, both accused of domestic assault, both admitted to it, and yet, two wildly different outcomes. When two people receive different punishments for what is essentially the same crime, something has gone wrong.
Watson will lose roughly a quarter of his one million dollar contract as a result of the missed games, but is that really enough? It’s a positive step forward to make him complete a substance abuse program, for him to have to examine his own behaviours and tendencies, but is 18 games really enough for him to change? More importantly, does it do the victims justice? Does it reinforce the severity of his actions and set an example that this behaviour will not be tolerated?
It’s one thing to say that women are welcome in sports, to say that they are safe, and that violence against them will not be tolerated, it’s another to show it. Thus far, there have been very few examples of professional sports leagues handing out punishments that prove that.
Athletes accused of domestic violence should be presumed innocent until proven guilty in the eyes of the law, but should that presumption extend to the league they play for? Should it extend to the general public? To an extent, yes, but there are some cases where the evidence is overwhelming, where pictures, videos and witness testimony, are so compelling that there’s no decent option but to believe the victim.
Players should be given a second chance, but they need to prove that they’ve put in the work. They can’t just say “sorry” and move on. Sports fans and league officials have no business deciding when or if a victim should forgive their abuser. Former abusers need to do more than just say they regret their actions, they need to show that regret. Go to therapy, make peace with the victim on their terms, donate to charities and organizations that help victims. They must condemn their past actions, promise never to repeat them, and go away for a while. These kinds of reparations can’t happen in 20 games, they can’t happen in 27, they can’t even happen over the course of a season.
Ray Rice is an example of someone who put in the work. He is repentant, apologetic, understanding that he completely blew his chance to play professional sports. He allowed his victim space and time to heal, and is now married to the woman from the infamous elevator video. What’s more, he doesn’t expect forgiveness. He uses his notoriety to educate players about domestic violence.
Recently there has been talk about reinstating Slava Voynov into the NHL as his record has been expunged on the grounds that he completed his community service. Voynov has shown himself not to be apologetic, and while his wife remains married to him, he has never made a public apology. Victims of domestic violence often stay with their partners out of fear, the fact that his wife stayed with him does nothing to lessen the severity of what he’s done. Voynov’s wife told the LAPD that it was not the first time that Voynov had hit her hard enough to cause serious injury. If this couple wanted privacy, it would be respectful to grant it to them, but because Voynov may want to return to North American professional sports, it would be irresponsible not to question his past abusive behaviour. To allow him the privilege of playing in the NHL once more would be an insult to victims of domestic violence when he has shown absolutely no regret for what he did.
There are certain sections of sports fans who don’t believe that this matters, they only care about an athlete’s skill, not his personal life. These people say that if Voynov is a good player, then he should be allowed to play, they think that the 18 games is more than enough for Austin Watson to be suspended, they roll their eyes when a victim comes forward. It’s no secret why these fans don’t care, it’s because they’re not the kind of people most affected by domestic violence, it’s not an issue that they, or their friends face regularly.
Women face these issues in their daily lives.
For any professional sports league to not have a domestic violence policy is shameful. It puts people at risk, it leaves rules open to interpretation, and allows abusers to go unpunished, and victims to go unheard. The policies of baseball, basketball, and football are not perfect, but at least they exist. The NHL has had neither the foresight, nor the hindsight to put a policy into effect, and that’s insulting. It’s insulting to the players, to their families, and to female sports fans in particular. When a league reduces a players suspension, what they are implicitly saying is that the crime committed is not severe. This sends a message that they don’t care. No matter what they say in press releases, actions speak louder than words.
The underlying problem with domestic violence in sports doesn’t lie with individual abusers. Abusers will exist in any demographic, but disproportionately present in sports because of the culture. The culture of masculinity, and toughness that can only be proven through violence. The lack of diversity of opinion that allows so called “women’s issues” to be ignored.
It’s not just athletes that contribute to this culture of violence, it’s fans too. Everybody’s seen the pictures of what happened in Vancouver in 2011 after the Stanley Cup Finals, it was carnage and destruction. During the world cup in England, reports of domestic violence increase by as much as 38 per cent when England loses, they increase as much as 20 per cent when they win, according to research published by the University of Lancaster.
Sports are high tension and highly emotional. Men are discouraged from expressing emotions any way other than through anger. This makes for a toxic combination when it’s considered that the target audience of most sporting events is largely male.
It’s a lack of diversity that contributes to a culture of silencing victims and a culture of repressing emotions until they erupt in violence. It’s no surprise that the NHL, which is one of the least diverse professional sports leagues, will be the last of the four major North American leagues to institute a domestic violence policy (that is, if they ever do at all). Straight, white men are the least likely demographic to be victims of domestic violence and they often don’t have to think about it. When these demographics control professional sports leagues, then professional sports leagues don’t have to think about it either.
This culture makes it difficult for victims to come forward and discourages people who are not straight, white, masculine, men to participate in sports culture, which is unfortunate, because sports can be emotional, beautiful, fun and such an incredible source of community. No one should be excluded from that for fear of violence.
As sports fans, we have to hold people accountable for their actions. Stop buying Austin Watson’s jerseys, boycott the Nashville Predator’s association, demand policy where there is none, demand better policies when they exist, listen to victims. Ask for diversity, behind the bench, on the field, on the ice, on the court, on the diamond. The more diverse voices that exist in a room the more likely ideas are to be challenged and the more likely change is to occur.
Listening to victims is the most effective way to inform policy. They are in the best position to prevent it because they lived it.
Domestic violence and sport don’t have to be as linked as they are. There are plenty of athletes who are respectful, inclusive, and progressive, and there are plenty of fans who the feel the same but there are of them not enough to outweigh the culture that surrounds them. More can be done to limit the number of abusers, more resources can be offered. Athletes should be encouraged to talk, whether that be to friends or mental health professionals. Most importantly, victims should not be silenced, paid off, or brushed aside.