Laslo Boyd: Hitting Women and Children

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By: Laslo Boyd 

Former Ravens’ running back Ray Rice is much more likely to be remembered for helping precipitate a national discussion about domestic abuse than for anything that he did on a football field. And that’s the good news.

Rice was released by the Ravens and suspended indefinitely by the National Football League. Prior to that, the standard response to incidents of abuse by professional athletes was to ignore their actions and let them keep playing. Initially, both NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the Ravens’ senior management reacted to reports of Rice’s elevator attack on his fiancée as if they assumed nothing needed to change. The irony for Rice is that if league officials had imposed a stricter penalty in the first place, public reaction to the second video might well have been more forgiving.

How much has really changed remains to be seen of course. Goodell had a press conference last week characterized by vague promises of reform and no specific actions. Still, the outpouring of criticism for Goodell and the multiple examples of domestic abuse by other NFL players suggest that the issue will not be so easily brushed aside.

On Monday, Steve Bisciotti responded to an ESPN story questioning the truthfulness of the initial public comments by the Ravens. Even if everything he said at his press conference turns out to be accurate — and you can bet that ESPN and a number of other news organizations will be looking for inconsistencies — his rebuttal highlighted yet again how ineptly the Ravens have handled the whole episode.

That the Ravens put no effort whatsoever into obtaining the elevator video is stunning. For a group of highly successful professionals to have botched the Rice affair so badly makes you wonder how they are able to function the rest of the time. The more information they release, the worse they look. Bisciotti, in responding to one of the ESPN allegations, provided an exchange of texts with Ray Rice in which he assured Rice that he still loved him and that Rice would have a job with the organization if he ever wanted one.

That exchange came after Bisciotti had seen the second video and after it become quite apparent that Rice had lied to the Ravens about what happened in the elevator. Bisciotti has not conveyed any sense of outrage at what Rice did or about the broader issue of domestic abuse.

In fairness to the NFL, domestic abuse is a societal problem, not just violence committed by professional football players. Dealing with it requires both cultural change and appropriate laws. Restraining orders and keeping guns away from abusers are among existing societal efforts, but obviously more is necessary.

Last week, the discussion broadened to include abuse of children when Minnesota Vikings’ running back Adrian Peterson was charged with abusing his four-year old son. We can thank Charles Barkley for highlighting one explanation for child abuse: his argument is that Black males in the South all hit their kids because that’s what happened to them when they were young. Historically, physical discipline has been widely accepted throughout American society.

Supporters of the Barkley thesis contend that parents should be given unlimited discretion in how they discipline their children. Some of the commentary provided differing racial views on what was appropriate or at least the norms within different communities.

What that position ignores is that we as a society have enacted laws that define abuse of children and prohibit physical and mental harm to them. The laws are not always as clear as some would prefer and certainly leave an element of discretion.  Nevertheless, by current law, what Adrian Peterson did to his son is over any reasonable line. Parents can lose custody of children when there is evidence of abuse or neglect. The explanation that they were merely exercising their right to discipline their children does not hold up in court.

Moreover, there is abundant research which shows that children who are abused are likely to grow up to be adults who abuse their children. Rather than say, as Charles Barkley did, that it’s always been that way, it’s way past time to stop the practice.

I wish I were confident that the attention given to Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson represents a turning point in the abuse of women and children in this country. It will take more time and commitment than we have seen so far, but there have been a few small signs of hope.

That thousands of Ravens fans turned in their Ray Rice jerseys is positive. That there have been some thoughtful and candid commentaries certainly contributes to the dialogue. It will be interesting to see if the NFL and the Ravens get serious about supporting efforts to end abuse and providing help to both abusers and victims, or whether they are merely engaged in damage control and public relations spin.

Last week, I wrote a column about the Rice affair that appeared on Monday rather than my normal slot on Thursday. We were concerned that the column be published while the topic was still timely. Clearly, this is a discussion which is far from over. I’m glad to have been wrong about that concern.

Let’s keep focusing on the importance of preventing abuse of women and children. Moving the subject to the bright glare of day rather than in the shadows is a significant development.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.