In the weeks since TMZ released video footage of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice beating his then-fiancé unconscious in an elevator, the NFL and its behavioral policies have been put under extreme scrutiny. Everyone seems to have an opinion as to whether or not the NFL turned a blind eye to Rice’s violent behavior, how repercussions for such behavior should be reformed and what Rice’s punishment should be. Yet all this debate fails to acknowledge the larger issue at hand: while Rice’s actions are clearly despicable, they are only one byproduct of a culture that unintentionally creates violent men.
It is not aggressive sports that make abusive characters, but the fact that American culture admires such aggression by teaching boys that it’s the “manly” way to behave. We can’t idolize such behavior in sports yet expect that this glorification will not have ill effects off the field as well.
With the emergence of domestic assault cases against not only Rice, but also Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, many would assume that it is the nature of these athletes’ aggressive sports that pollutes their disposition, making them violent. Naturally, when we worship, admire and overpay these men to be warriors on the field, it’s not unreasonable to see their dedication to this display of hyper-masculinity become an essential part of their personalities off the field.
In light of the Rice incident, the NFL has made feeble attempts at punitive action, giving Rice a two game suspension from which he returned to a standing ovation by fans at a Ravens practice session. Similarly, Peterson was placed on the exempt list, barring him from participating in practices and games but allowing him to continue receiving salary.
While suspending players and releasing apologetic statements makes a halfhearted attempt at addressing these conduct issues, they do not come close to addressing the root of the problem. The NFL is going to have to make its repercussions exponentially more severe (a ban from the league for first-time offenders might do the trick) if it hopes to eradicate domestic abuse amongst its players. But still this will not address this species of violence within the much larger American population. The problem that we’re seeing on prominent national stages like the NFL is one that exists just as prominently elsewhere.
Violent behavior is not just exhibited by bad individuals and professional athletes and is not the fault of provocative women, but rather is something that we unknowingly raise our boys to embody from the time we give them their first G.I. Joe. We raise them to love sports like football and to mimic the aggression that they see. We constantly affirm the importance of this definition of masculinity by telling them, “Don’t be a pussy,” and “Be a man!”, implying that sensitivity is an exclusively female trait and that dominance is essential to masculinity. Therefore, it is not the sports themselves that create abusers, but rather their prominence that magnifies a deeper, cultural issue.
Organizations such as the NFL can and should make stricter policies against domestic violence but the more impactful work will be done in shifting the cultural expectations with which we raise our boys. This starts with de-stigmatizing the emotional struggles that boys suffer from underneath their conventionally masculine facades.
“The Mask You Live In,” a documentary produced by The Representation Project, set for release in 2015, explores and criticizes how American boys are taught to mask their insecurity with overly masculine personas. The film’s trailer states, “Boys are still led to believe that power is associated with domination,” explaining that, to prove themselves dominant and worthy, boys wear aggressive masks that over time become integral parts of their character.
Men raised this way seek outlets for their aggression and, unfortunately, women often become the subjects of this pent up anger and insecurity. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime; a rate of abuse much more frequent than what we have so far seen in the NFL. This is not to say that we know of all instances of abuse by professional athletes, but rather it is meant to express that domestic abuse is clearly far from a sports-specific issue.
Even here at Boston College, abuse is a pertinent subject. A joint discussion group led by the campus organizations Dedicated Intellectuals of the People (DIOP) and Sisters Let’s Talk was asked if they had ever witnessed domestic abuse firsthand, many of the people in the room raised their hands. Even at a school where everyone is highly educated, disciplined and seemingly picture perfect, domestic abuse can be found.
A culture that reveres violent sports and hyper masculinity is a catalyst for abuse cases like that of Ray and Janay Rice more so than the aggressive sports themselves. It may be hard for us to acknowledge that sports and individual character flaws are not solely responsible for the startling rate of abuse in the US, but understanding how abuse can take root subtly and unremarkably, as well as discussing the domestic violence issues that affect all of us — whether directly or indirectly — is exactly the antidote for violence that our society needs.