It’s been 13 months since Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was arrested and charged with assaulting his then-fiancee in an Atlantic City casino, and six months since video of the attack went viral. The incident — and the NFL’s mishandling of it — dominated sports headlines for weeks. But while the Rice case brought new attention to domestic violence and sexual assault involving athletes, those problems didn’t begin with Rice, and they haven’t ended there. A database maintained by USA Today lists at least 94 incidents in which NFL players have been arrested for domestic violence or sexual assault. That list doesn’t include former Florida State University quarterback Jameis Winston, who is widely expected to be selected first in the NFL draft later this spring, despite accusations that he raped a fellow student. (Winston was never charged with a crime; a New York Times story last year found evidence that the investigation was “flawed.”) And the problem goes far beyond professional football: Athletes at all levels in virtually every sport have faced similar accusations.
On Friday, SXsports — the sports-focused offshoot of the long-running South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas — hosted an hourlong discussion on sexual assault and domestic violence in sports. The panel, which I moderated and helped to organize, featured three people with different perspectives on the issue:
- Katie Hnida, a former placekicker for the University of New Mexico, in 2003 became the first woman to score in a Division I-A men’s college football game. She later went public with her story of being harassed and raped by teammates at the University of Colorado, where she first played.
- Jane Randel is the co-founder of No More, a coalition aiming to raise awareness and engage bystanders in ending domestic violence and sexual assault. No More has partnered with the NFL, and Randel is currently serving as a consultant to the league in its anti-violence efforts.
- Don McPherson was an all-American quarterback at the University of Syracuse, where he led the Orange to an undefeated record in 1987. He later played in the NFL and the Canadian Football League. Since retiring from football, he has dedicated his life to social justice causes, particularly ending violence against women.
At the start of our discussion, I noted that the cases involving Rice, Winston and others are only anecdotes. Even the USA Today database only gives raw numbers of incidents involving NFL players — it doesn’t tell us anything about whether violence against women is a bigger problem in the league or in sports than it is in society at large. (My colleague Benjamin Morris tried to fill that void back in July when he found that NFL players are arrested on domestic violence charges at a far higher rate than would be expected based on their age and income.)
Numerous studies have tried to perform a more rigorous analysis, and many have found evidence of a link between athletics and violence. But it’s hard to find definitive proof: Domestic and sexual violence are notoriously underreported, and data on perpetrators is even more sparse than information on victims. That forces most researchers to conduct research using surveys, often with sample sizes too small to allow them to draw strong conclusions about the causes of violence.
In the absence of better data, I asked McPherson whether he thought there was a connection between sports culture and violence against women. He said yes — but that sports also has an opportunity to help reduce violence by confronting narrow definitions of masculinity.
Hnida said locker rooms don’t have to be hostile environments for women. At the University of New Mexico, she said, there was a culture of respect that started at the top. At the University of Colorado, by contrast, she said she “felt like I was more of an object, that I was not actually a person.”
The title of our panel was “Can Sports Help End a Culture of Violence?” I asked Randel what she thought the answer was — could sports not just address its own problems but also help have an impact in society at large? She said yes, explaining that sports offers an enormous platform from which to reach men and boys.
But McPherson said we won’t make much progress fighting violence against women — either in sports or beyond it — until we start talking honestly about who the perpetrators are: men. The numbers back that up. According to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, 99 percent of rapes and nearly 95 percent of sexual assaults against women are committed by men. Men also commit the vast majority of stalking offenses against women.
After the Ray Rice incident, the NFL partnered with No More, which produced a much-discussed PSA that ran during the Super Bowl. The success of that ad — it’s been viewed more than 7 million times on YouTube — shows the reach of the NFL and other sports leagues. But I asked Randel how she could be sure No More was making a difference and not just providing public relations cover for the NFL.
Hnida closed the panel with a message to the leagues, the media and sports fans: “Keep talking.”