Psychologist Ron Slaby was driving around this week, listening to sports talk radio, where the subject, of course, was Ray Rice. The NFL had just announced that it was beefing up its training around domestic violence. The radio host was scoffing.
“What training?” he was saying.“All you need to do is say, ‘Don’t hit your woman, period.’”
No, Slaby thought. That’s exactly what doesn’t work.
Slaby should know: He has spent a long career studying violence prevention, at Harvard and Boston Children’s Hospital. He pioneered the idea of bystander intervention. He helped develop programs used in schools and in the military, teaching men not just how to act in their own relationships, but how to keep their peers from being violent.
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In a way, we’ve all gotten an education this week, a slow-mo, step-by-step lesson in how domestic violence happens and how hard it is to escape. There is the video of Ray Rice in an elevator, hitting his then-fiancee so hard she lost consciousness, dragging her limp body out the door. The painful Instagram response of Janay Palmer Rice, decrying her husband’s suspension from the league, drawing criticism of her own. The Twitter hashtags #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft, a torrent of heartbreaking personal stories, proving that the answers aren’t simple.
Everyone’s looking for easy answers. Don’t hit. Just leave. Suspend Ray Rice. Fire NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Scrap the NFL for good.
What we ought to be asking, Slaby suggests, is,“What would I have done if I were there?”
Curbing domestic violence, and all of the horrors that branch out from it, has something to do with the power of individuals. But it has a lot to do with the power of groups. #WhyIStayed was launched by one woman, but grew into a stream of private confessions. Collectively, they’ve changed the conversation.
And that dynamic can work on the ground, said Nancy Robinson, the executive director of Operation LIPSTICK, a Boston-based program that enlists women’s help in stopping gun trafficking in inner cities. At social events and leadership training meetings, women learn that the guns they buy or hide – because their boyfriends or brothers or grandsons have asked, or demanded – could wind up used against them or their neighbors. They meet other women who have said “no.” They find the strength to do the same.
“It’s all peer-to-peer organizing and word of mouth,” Robinson told me this week. “It’s a lot like Mothers Against Drunk Driving. It’s changing the culture. Right now, there’s a norm that says it’s OK to do this. And these women are changing the norm.”
This is what the NFL has to do: Change the way players think about domestic violence, and not just out of fear of a six-game suspension. Slaby told me about one program he helped to develop, called “MVP,” for Mentors in Violence Prevention. It began as a project by one of his graduate students. Now, it operates out of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society. And it uses sports as both a metaphor and a jumping-off point.
Training for a college team begins with group discussion, led by a mentor everyone respects: A beloved former player, a returning star. He asks the trainees to visualize a woman they love, being threatened or attacked. He asks them to imagine another guy standing there, watching, doing nothing.
No one thinks he'll be that guy. But the mentor asks for proof. “Pick your play,” he tells them – because if you don’t have a playbook, the moment will pass. He walks through real-life scenarios. He talks out the possibilities. He trains them to think ahead, and to know what they don’t want to be.
A zero-tolerance policy for violence is “just not enough,” Slaby said. And if all we talk about are consequences, then the violence just moves to “the elevator behind closed doors.“’
That’s what happened with Ray Rice. A punch was thrown. A player got punished, slightly. Then it all blew up. What would Rice’s teammates have done, or the Baltimore Ravens ownership, or Roger Goodell, if they’d actually had a play in mind?
Joanna Weiss can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.