Mary McDonald is the Homer C. Rice Chair of Sports and Society in the School of History, Technology and Society. Her research focuses on the cultural studies of sport including representations of gender, race, class and sexuality.
The stories of former Baltimore Raven Ray Rice’s elevator assault of then-fiancé Janay Palmer and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s indecisive leadership in response to intimate partner violence (IPV) committed by several other NFL players continue to evolve. These include questions about whether or not elite male sports figures commit violence against intimate female partners at higher rates than their non-athlete counterparts. There is some evidence to suggest this may be the case, although this is difficult to establish given that most cases of intimate partner assault – involving both athletes and non-athletes – are never reported to the police. There remains an epidemic of violence. The FBI’s crime reports estimate that more than three women die every day after being assaulted by male current or former partners.
Given elite sports’ symbiotic relationship with the media, when reported, media accounts of intimate partner violence committed by male sports figures – athletes, coaches and administrators – are now among the most visible accounts of IPV available in U.S. culture. Understanding the ways that these assaults are represented is important. The Rice case reveals both persistent misunderstandings and shifting attitudes. For example, some popular accounts continue to focus on Janay Rice herself, replicating longstanding tendencies to “blame the victim” for staying. This focus generated a social media campaign, #WhyIStayed, providing an unprecedented public forum for intimate partner violence victims to explain their decisions.
African Americans constitute approximately 65 percent of NFL players. The recent discussions also include racist stereotypes, deflecting attention away from abuse committed by white men in the broader culture. Very little media attention has been given to approaches that proactively deal with and lower rates of violence, such as community policing and restorative justice. Among the notable exceptions to this line of reporting is the presence of several male sports figures denouncing IPV. This includes CBS sportscaster James Brown, who characterized domestic violence as a men’s issue by connecting acts of violence to distorted notions of manhood and the ways in which women are culturally devalued both within and beyond sports. As Brown noted during a recent football telecast, it is time for “men to stand up and take responsibility for their thoughts, their words, their deeds. And as Deion [Sanders] says, to give help or to get help, because our silence is deafening and deadly.”
McDonald is heading the new Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts program in Sports, Society, and Technology, which includes a newly approved undergraduate minor for students interested in the interdisciplinary study of sports.
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