By Emily Rudenick LeBlanc, LPC-S
Director of Community Advocacy, SafePlace
“It’s not for me to say.”
Those are the words Baltimore Raven’s Coach John Harbaugh offered reporters Tuesday in response to questions about what will happen to Ray Rice, the team’s star running back, as a result of beating his fiancé until she was unconscious. The coach continued with, “There are many sides to every story,” according to the Washington Post.
There is video evidence of Mr. Rice dragging his victim’s limp body out of an elevator after the assault. He doesn’t deny an assault took place, but rather calls the assault mutual. Having seen the video, there’s not much mutuality in one person dragging the unconscious body of another. Despite more evidence than we ever see in domestic violence assaults, Mr. Rice will not serve a day in jail. Rather, he will participate in a pretrial intervention program to avoid trial on aggravated assault charges.
There is very little uncommon about this case other than Mr. Rice’s celebrity and the video evidence of the crime. I’ve seen hundreds of domestic violence cases result in no jail time for the perpetrator. I’ve seen hundreds of cases in which the victim tries to take responsibility for the assault herself and wants the charges dropped altogether. That is precisely the reason that these cases are brought by the state and not by the victim. The reasons a victim may want charges dropped are many. She often loves the perpetrator, depends on him financially, has been threatened with more abuse or with harm to people she loves if she does not try to get the charges dropped. Ultimately, the victim’s conflicted feelings for the perpetrator have no bearing on whether or not a crime occurred or on whether or not it was acceptable behavior.
My purpose today is not to argue the sentence or to judge pretrial intervention programs versus time served. Nor is my purpose to judge the victim’s participation or lack thereof in the prosecution of the crime. As an advocate who devotes her career to understanding the cycle of violence and helping others do the same, I know that the dynamics of domestic violence are complicated and the mechanisms of power and control used by abusers are strong and effective.
What I take issue with today is the idea that “it’s not for me to say” that what happened here is wrong. Have we really reached a point in our culture in which we cannot agree that beating another human being until she is unconscious is inherently wrong? There are many issues in our world that cannot be seen as black and white–I get that– but this seems like pretty clear moral territory.
If Mr. Rice were the victim here and had been beaten unconscious by a bigger, stronger man on the street (assuming said man wasn’t a star football player), would the coach still think it’s not for him to say? We don’t make such allowances for any other crimes, so what makes sexual and domestic violence so different? When someone is killed by a drunk driver, we don’t stay quiet because “there are many sides to every story.”
When is it for us to say that someone should be accountable for abusive behavior? We are, after all, setting the standard of what will be acceptable to our kids and grandkids. Do we want our little girls to believe that their life is somehow less valuable because of their gender? Do we want our little boys to believe that it is okay for them to beat others unconscious, as long as their victims are women? Even more, do we want them to believe that if they are just famous enough or play the right sport, it’s okay for them to lose their sense of right and wrong? As a mother to a little girl and soon to be little boy, I think it is for me to say.
It is for me to say that what happened to Ms. Palmer is not okay. It’s reprehensible, disgusting and abusive and won’t be tolerated in my world. It is for me to say that my little girl and my little boy are equally deserving of healthy, loving relationships. It is for me to say that when we watch football together, we will talk about how sports are fun, but that each player is more than his skill on the field. We will talk about character and integrity and how we are all responsible for helping the next generation of boys and girls learn right from wrong. We will talk about power—the power of race, gender, class, and privilege, the power of grown-ups, teachers and coaches—and how we all have a responsibility to use our own power respectfully to stand up for what is right.
I grew up playing sports and was lucky enough to have a coach who not only believed in me and challenged me to be better than I thought I could be athletically, but also taught me about character, respect, and accountability. When something wasn’t right, coach said so, even if it meant angering the other coaches. More importantly, he stood up for all of the little girls on the field, regardless of which team they were on, and made sure that we were treated with the respect we deserved.
Coach Harbaugh, it is for you to say. It is for all of us to say that interpersonal violence is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. To say otherwise is to be complicit in perpetuating the very cycle of violence that allowed the assault in the first place. You are in a unique position to set an example for millions of boys and men and girls and women about what real masculinity looks like. Use it. Use your power to show the world that strong men don’t hit, punch or strangle and honorable men aren’t afraid to stand up to the masses when it’s the right thing to do. You see, coach, interpersonal violence is about power and control. And any of us who make excuses for or turn a blind eye to such violence are ourselves misusing our power and giving control to those who don’t deserve it.
There are more important things than winning the Super Bowl. Let your legacy be one of integrity—there isn’t a ring or salary big enough to give you that. The great thing about life, just like football, is you often get a second chance. So let’s call this second and ten. This time say something. Better yet, do something. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233 in case you need it at the next press conference.