Most of the time, domestic violence is a couple’s dirty little secret.
Abusers usually are careful to present one face to the world and wait until behind closed doors to inflict abuse, often being careful not to leave visible marks.
The Ray Rice video has helped bring domestic violence into the light, thanks to security camera footage from a hotel elevator. The world got an eyeful – of the muscular Baltimore Ravens football player punching his then fiancee, Janay, in the face and knocking her out cold. Then dragging her limp body out of the elevator as if she were a sack of potatoes. The couple had been celebrating Valentine’s Day.
Less than six weeks later, Janay married Rice – the day after he was indicted on a third-degree assault charge. That charge will be dismissed upon Rice completing a yearlong intervention program for first offenders. Janay has been photographed supportively at his side, and a message posted on her Instagram account lashed out at the media for the “nightmare” of publicity that has “hurt us.”
Domestic violence victims often have a complicated relationship with their abuser, especially if children are involved, as in this case. They may be unwilling, or unable, to leave because they’re financially dependent. Often they do love their abuser and believe they can change him.
If the Rices are in counseling, there may be hope for her and their relationship. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he should continue to play professional football – a sport that elevates young men to role model status. National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell’s initial two-game suspension of Rice was a misstep – another player had received a season-long ban for marijuana use – and he will be lucky to hold on to his job.
But the league does appear to be taking stronger action in the wake of the video’s release. The Ravens fired Rice, and the league has suspended him indefinitely.
Moving forward, the NFL has announced a six-game suspension for future first offenses and a lifetime ban for a subsequent offense. It has hired former FBI director Robert Mueller to look into Goodell’s handling of the Rice investigation, and it is bringing in three domestic violence experts to “help lead and shape the NFL’s policies and programs relating to domestic violence and sexual assault.”
Those are good moves. It’s unfortunate that it took a video to spark a national discussion on a subject that affects so many women - about one in four, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. But sometimes seeing the hard evidence is what it takes.
There’s power in images – from disturbing photos taken at Abu Ghraib prison to gruesome videos of Islamic State beheadings – that can finally grab attention and lead to action. That may be what’s happening with domestic violence. As Ravens coach John Harbaugh put it Monday, “It’s a bigger issue than sports. It’s a societal issue.”