The Offense: Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was caught on tape dragging his unconscious fiancé out of a hotel elevator after knocking her out. As a result of an internal investigation, the NFL punished Rice with a two game suspension. In ESPN’s coverage of these events, commentator Stephen A Smith insinuated that women are often to blame when they are abused and that women need to be more careful not to “provoke” the violence perpetrated against them.
NOW’s Analysis: The NFL’s lax punishment of Rice is highly offensive considering that the minimum suspension for substance abuse in the league is double Rice’s suspension and that, in 2007, Michael Vick was suspended indefinitely for dogfighting. The NFL clearly needs to change its policies when smoking weed — which is now legal in some states — is considered twice as bad as violently assaulting a woman.
While the NFL’s response was inadequate, ESPN’s coverage was equally despicable. An estimated one in four women in the U.S. will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime, and those women are never to blame for the acts of violence committed against them.
Domestic abuse and sexual assault are serious issues that affects millions of women, including football fans across the nation. Forty-five percent of NFL fans are women, and this base is growing. ESPN must realize that out of these tens of millions of female fans, many are survivors of domestic abuse. ESPN should not assume that their audience is on board with comments that perpetuate rape culture and side with abusers. Not only is it disrespectful and thoughtless to fail to acknowledge almost half of your demographic, this could be triggering to women who are survivors of domestic abuse or sexual assault.
The response to Ray Rice’s violence against his fiancé is more than just a problem with the NFL, it is indicative of a larger problem with how our society talks about domestic violence and sexual assault. Victim blaming is an integral part of rape culture, and unfortunately, this archaic attitude is still treated as a valid opinion in discourse on this issue in the mainstream media. The ESPN needs to be held accountable for having appropriate and sensitive coverage of an important issue that impacts millions of their biggest fans.
Take Action: Have something to say? Show your displeasure with Stephen A. Smith by tweeting at his show, @ESPN_FirstTake
Updated (8/28/2014): The NFL has announced new punishments for personnel of the league (including players) who commit acts of domestic violence. A first offense brings a six game suspension, a second offense receives an indefinite ban.