What Can Congress Do About Pro Sports’ Domestic Violence Problem?

Rob Carr/Getty Images

Rob Carr/Getty Images

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation — the committee in charge of oversight of sports at all levels — convened for a hearing on Tuesday to discuss domestic violence as seen in professional sports, and the way America’s largest athletic leagues have handled cases of abuse and violence internally. In particular the hearing addressed failures on the part of the NFL, NBA, MLB, and unions within the NFL in dealing with these cases. All groups sent representatives of their own, including the NFL Players Association (PA), which had until shortly before the hearing, chosen to abstain. However, the NFL was the sole organization to see the PA represented at the hearing, others choosing to remain out of the discussion, something brought up during the hearing as a critical note. But this was far from the only critical tone to be heard, mixed in as it was with a great deal of comradery and reminiscence over America’s love of sports.

The past few years we’ve witnessed some truly shocking acts from some of these public figures, but just as concerning is how the league handles these situations and how the unions protect these players,” said Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.). “Its very clear to me that getting these players back on the field was more important than addressing instance of sexual assault, domestic violence, or even child abuse. The leagues and the unions simply brush these problems aside and [leave] it to the courts,” he said.

Some members were careful to spend time in particular addressing why Congress has a role in this discussion of how major league institutions handle internal discipline. Their involvement in examining inappropriately handled abuse and assault cases was perhaps best explained by Chairman Sen. John D. Rockefeller (R-W.V.), though it was discussed by most who spoke. Rockefeller described the importance of sports in culture in America, and for youth as a role model, stating that while domestic abuse and violence is a societal problem, “when a celebrity athlete is charged with committing domestic violence it uniquely reverberates through our society.”

As to where Congress comes in, Rockefeller pointed out that not only do athletes have a very public and influential role culturally, but in a more concrete sense, “Professional sports draw unique benefits bestowed upon them by the public.” Examples of this included “public funds for stadiums or exemptions to anti-trust laws,” thus making it “entirely proper for this committee to focus its attention on how professional sports leagues and their unions are handling the problem of domestic violence within their ranks.”

What followed his opening remarks was a fairly aggressive back and forth between Senators and representatives, with particular focus placed on cases like Ray Rice’s.

Each representative offered varying levels of accountability for their individual institutions. NFL executive Troy Vincent — formerly a cornerback — testified that in his home growing up, abuse was a “way of life.” Joe Torre of Major League Baseball similarly testified, discussing his own personal experience and the efforts of his Safe at Home program. Others on the committee discussed experience from prior careers as prosecutors, and the difficulty courts face in bringing domestic abuse cases to a conviction, and repeatedly mentioning the absence of certain representatives.

As a result of fear, intimidation of a uniquely financial angle for major league partners, and a tendency for withdrawal from bringing charges (potentially encouraged by team members or coaches), many of these cases are not convicted. As such the committee focused particularly on internal investigation and whether punishment hinged upon legal outcome — i.e. would a 10-game suspension only be brought if a court could bring the case to a successful conclusion for the victim — as so rarely happens.

“The leagues have done little or nothing in response. In fact, the press has reported that a culture of silence within the league often prevents victims from reporting their abuse to law enforcement. This has to change,” said Rockefeller. Also a topic of concern brought up time and again was the matter of consistency or uniformity in punishment across teams and across sports — currently a problem made complex by player associations, leagues, and team owners alike. The hearing was a sometimes successful, sometimes not-so-successful consideration of investigatory needs and accountability sans the help of a usually absent or intimidated victim testimony.

To leave off, former NFL athlete Terry Crews perhaps said it best in his discussion of feminism, saying that “by your silence” you are lending “acceptance” to abuse, assault, and inequality for women.

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