It’s been months since the infamous video of Ray Rice beating up his wife surfaced in the public sphere and since then we’ve had another Super Bowl. Now that the dust has settled, most people would be inclined to ‘move on’ until the next such messy incident. Most people, but not everyone. In this post Martin Okoli tells us why he will not be watching the Super Bowl again if he can help it. What is the value of personal protest? Is there any point? How can men show solidarity with women and tell other men that violence against women is just wrong? How can we ensure the conversation creates a whole new ball game?
Sunday – It’s fascinating how emotive and emblematic days of the week can be. When I think about this particular day, I think about my name, I think about religion and I think about sport. This particular Sunday when I write this piece is rather special as it is Super Bowl Sunday. That usually means excitement, anticipation, razzmatazz, glory, tension, hope…
But this Super Bowl Sunday is especially noteworthy because for the first time in fifteen years, I did not tune in.
I boycotted the Super Bowl this year because of two words – Ray Rice. About a year ago, Ray Rice knocked his wife (then fiancée) Janay Rice unconscious in an elevator in Las Vegas. Despite video footage of Ray dragging Janay’s unconscious body from the elevator, his team, the Baltimore Ravens were quick to jump to his defence, to the point of suggesting to Janay that she apologise for “her role” in the incident. This appears to be the recurring theme regarding violence against women and girls (VAWG): a man physically and/or sexually assaults a woman, and the responsibility for his behaviour gets placed on the woman that he has attacked.
This hazardous culture of blaming the victim as was the case when Rihanna was assaulted by Chris Brown in 2009, as was the case when two Ohio State football players were found guilty of raping a 16 year old girl, as was the case when a barrister and a judge described a 13 year old girl that was sexually assaulted by a 41 year old man as a sexual predator, only serve to send the message that women and girls are in some way responsible for the way that men and boys behave.
The Baltimore Ravens’ response (as well as the aforementioned examples) demonstrates how VAWG does not exist in a vacuum. One of the resources that I use in my work with perpetrators of domestic violence highlights how violence and abuse within intimate and personal relationships exist within cultures and institutions that reinforce VAWG. Instead of challenging the norms and rituals of the patriarchy and showing that they actually care about women, the Ravens chose to drop the helmet and barrel through women to further reinforce male power.
The National Football League (NFL) commissioner Roger Goodell went on to fine Ray Rice $58,000 and suspend him for two games, before further footage leaked of Ray knocking Janay unconscious inside the elevator (apparently TMZ could get the video but the NFL couldn’t). Remember what I said about institutions and cultures reinforcing VAWG? If the NFL will suspend a player for one year for using marijuana and two games for knocking a woman unconscious, it becomes difficult for them to state that they take VAWG seriously.
But wait, there’s more…
Following the release of the video inside the elevator, Rice was released by the Ravens and suspended indefinitely by the NFL, though he has recently been reinstated after a judge found his second suspension to be arbitrary as Rice had not misled the commissioner during the initial investigation. This suggests that Goodell knew what happened in the elevator and still thought that a two game suspension would suffice. Rice’s reinstatement now means that nine months after knocking his wife unconscious, he is eligible to play football again– how’s that for punishment and accountability?
Remember what I said about institutions and cultures reinforcing VAWG? Children that watch and idolise Ray Rice get a clear picture from his punishment (or lack thereof, both legally and from within the institutions of his employment) that VAWG comes at minimal cost. Not even a year removed from the incident, Ray Rice is able to seek employment once again into a public position where he acts as a rolemodel , because that’s what public figures are, whether they like it or not. And what has been modelled here by Rice, the Ravens, the NFL and the legal system is that women are not important. Ray Rice should have gone to prison for what he did. The fact is that Janay Rice could have been killed that night.
In my work for a domestic violence charity that promotes the safety of women and children, we run a number of groups for male perpetrators of domestic violence to help them to learn to change their behaviour and have safer healthier relationships. When I’ve spoken to men that have used violence and/or abuse against women, many have talked about wanting to ‘shut their partner up’. Ironically, the culture of pointing the finger at the victim often has the intent of silencing them or keeping them quiet. This is also the intent of most opposition to feminism that I encounter – wanting to keep women’s voices quiet. As feminism strives for equality for all women in all aspects of life, including human rights, VAWG is a direct assault on the right to freedom from exploitation, violence and abuse.
I didn’t watch any of the NFL season this past year. I checked scores occasionally to see how the Oakland Raiders (the team I support) fared, but aside from that, my awareness of what has transpired this past season has been non-existent. You may ask why I’m choosing to deprive myself of something that I clearly have some level of emotional attachment to. I’ve reflected on that question countless times over the past several months. The answer that I always arrive at is that I can’t banish my feeling of disappointment, and it is clear that some women feel this way too.
I’m disappointed in Ray Rice. Here is a man that many children look up to. He behaved horrifically and should be held accountable for what he did, as well as take action to ensure that he never behaves in that way again. But Ray Rice is not a monster. He is not an animal that emerged from the darkness to commit this vile behaviour only to slink away back into obscurity. He is much more normal than that. Perpetrators that I work with are not monsters. They do not have ‘I’m an abuser’ tattooed on their foreheads. And although Rice’s case was very public, it was certainly not a rare act of VAWG. We have to start making the cultural and societal connections and start asking why men are perpetrating VAWG on such a large scale worldwide.
I’m more disappointed in the Baltimore Ravens – a franchise that I watched and supported as underdogs in Super Bowl XLVII as they defied all odds to take home the Vince Lombardi trophy. I’m more disappointed in the NFL – an establishment that I have emotionally and financially invested and a sport that I have physically given to. I look at this as a mathematical sum: Rice’s behaviour plus the larger institutions that reinforced his actions equal a de-valuing of women and a crime against equality. Had the legal, Ravens and NFL’s responses been firm and just, I may not have written this article. As I stated before, VAWG does not exist in a vacuum. Until we start acknowledging the role of societies and cultures in producing men that use VAWG, a reshaping will never occur.
I can’t un-see what has been seen , so I did something.
Doing something to take a stand against VAWG is going to look different for different people. I chose to write this article, I chose to work for a domestic violence charity, I chose to write a children’s book about domestic violence, I chose to write a poetry collection about the harmful nature of patriarchy and some masculinity norms. You may choose to tweet your displeasure about VAWG, you may choose to volunteer for an organisation that strives to end VAWG, you may choose to challenge the next person you hear that makes a rape joke, you may chose to start or sign a petition for justice on a VAWG issue or write a letter to those in positions of power to ensure that your voice and the voices of victims are heard. You may simply choose to talk about VAWG and feminism amongst your peer group. The point is that everyone can do something.
I also chose to not watch the NFL this year. Will the NFL care about my personal boycott? Probably not. But in the same way that Ray Rice has to look in the mirror and ask himself whether he cares about women, and redressing the balance of power that exists in the world between genders, I have to do the same. And while two women a week are killed by a male partner or ex partner and 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, VAWG is an epidemic that we all have to do something to address. This is an issue of equality. This is an issue of power and this is an issue of feminism. Women are much more likely than men to experience domestic or sexual violence (ONS, Focus on Violent Crime & Sexual Offences, 2011/12 pg 4)
Every person that I have met in my life has at least one women or girl that they care about deeply. Janay Rice is a mother, a wife and a daughter that has been let down by her husband, let down a system that has allowed her husband to behave in the way that he did. The reality is that Janay Rice is one of many women that have been let down, by a partner, by police and legal responses to domestic and sexual violence. Instead of waiting around to see whether it’ll be your sister, or mother, or daughter, or partner next, how about we do something?
Do I think that enough people will boycott the NFL for them to notice? Nope. My boycott is a personal choice, and there is certainly a valid argument for continuing to enjoy the game while remaining a critical thinker as a fan. But what I am trying to say is that the time for doing nothing is gone. The NFL has a written policy (which has recently been made stricter) regarding domestic violence, but actions speak louder than words. Ray Rice has said that he has “learned from his mistakes”, but actions speak louder than words. On the groups that I facilitate as part of my job role, I ask the men how far they are willing to go in order to be accountable. Let me just say that in my view, Ray Rice and the NFL have a long way to go.
Remember what I said about institutions and cultures reinforcing VAWG? We live in this culture. We establish these institutions. By taking action, whatever that action may be for you personally, we can make it a whole new ballgame.