Athletes and Domestic Violence
A lady calls 911 and cries that her husband is beating her. She wants to
file a report, but then asks the dispatcher if it is going to be in the paper
the next day. When the dispatcher doesn’t reply, she changes her mind about the
report and hangs up (Cart). The lady was Sun Bonds, wife of all-star San
Francisco Giant, Barry Bonds. Like the wives of other famous players, she was a
victim of spousal abuse. Athletes are praised as heroes for what they do on the
playing field, but what they do off the field is never mentioned. As a
disappointed sports fan, I want to draw attention to the domestic violence cases
that involve athletes.
Athletes have been abusing their spouses since sports were created, but
not until the OJ Simpson trial has domestic violence become “the issue du jour.”
When Simpson was arrested on New Years Day for beating his wife, none of the
newspapers reported it. When he pleaded no contest five months later, there was
a small brief in the second page of The Los Angeles Times’ Metro Section (Cart).
In the last three years alone the list of the accused included Dante Bichette,
Barry Bonds, John Daly, Scottie Pippen, Jose Conseco, Bobby Cox, Mike Tyson,
Warren Moon, Michael Cooper, Darryl Strawberry, Duane Causwell, Olden Polynice,
Robert Parish, and OJ Simpson( Callahan, Sports Ilustrated). And these are only
the pro athletes whose wives had the courage to report the violence.
Madeline Popa, president of Nebraska National Organization for Women
stated, “Athletes are role models to small children. Viewers worry about the
violence on television, but generally that is make- believe. When there are
real-life heroes engaging in violence, the message to young boys and
girls is, ‘If you are a star athlete you can get away with things
(qtd in L.A. Times).'”
There is an act of domestic violence every eighteen seconds in the
United States. One in every three women will experience it, according to a study
done by The L.A. Times. Abuse is the number one cause of injury for women. About
six million women are abused each year; four thousand are killed (Cart).
Although the sports world is not involved with all of these statistics, they are
an important factor as to why the numbers are so high. The survey found that in
1995 there were 252 incidents involving 345 active sports players.
Another survey done by Sports Illustrated reveals that eight to twelve
women a year are assaulted by their partners. More women die from abuse than
from car accidents and muggings combined. A study done by the University of
Massachusetts and Northeastern University revealed that out of 107 cases of
sexual assault reported in various universities, most of them involved male
student-athletes although they only make up 3.3% of the total male body
(Callahan). This means that male student-athletes were six times more involved
than males who were not student-athletes.
Despite these studies some people believe that sports does not have a
problem with the issue of domestic violence. Richard Lapchick, director of the
Center on the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University believes,
“These exaggerations in studies do not discount that there is solid evidence
of a problem in sport” and “Athletes are not necessarily more prone to domestic
violence than others (quoted from The L.A. Times and Sports Illustrated).”
Marriah Burton Nelson, author of The Stronger Women Get, The More Men
Like Football: Sexism and the American Culture of Sports, is one of the many
people who disagree with Lapchick. She believes that sports create an aggression
found in men who beat their wives. She says,
It is not the sport themselves, but the culture of the sports in which
male athlete and coaches talk about women with contempt. The culture of
sports is a breeding ground. It begins with the little league coach saying,
‘you throw like a girl.’ This teaches boys to feel superior. Masculinity is
defined as aggression and dominance. In order to be a man you have to be on
top, to control, to dominate (qtd in L.A. Times).
Dr. Myriam Miedzian author of Boys Will Be Boys: Breaking the Link
Between Masculinity and Violence, agrees with Nelson. He thinks, “Athletes are
taught to hurt people. Empathy has been knocked out of them” (qtd in American
Health). Most coaches do not allow their players to have a real relationship
because they are afraid that a female influence will “soften” a player. The
athletes are taught not to “see the guy across the line as a human being, how
can they see women as human beings? As long as you rear boys to be tough,
dominant, in charge, they simply won’t be prepared for contemporary women
Most researchers agree that one of the main reasons athletes abuse their
spouses is because they have grown accustomed to the mistreatment of women which
surrounds sports. “Sports culture creates a negative attitude towards women,
attitudes of superiority that could lead to violence,” says Michael Messner,
associate professor of sociology at USC (qtd in L.A. Times). Vance Johnson,
a Denver Bronco wide receiver, admits that he did beat his first two wives.
He blames his misconduct on himself and on the sports environment he lived
in for teaching him that domestic violence is okay. He writes, “Everywhere
I looked men abused women…All of the women were really battered and
abused emotionally and physically. It was just the way of life no one ever
did anything about it (qtd in Vance pg 83).”
Jackson Katz of the Center for the Study of Sports in Society states,
“Athletes believe they are entitled to have women serve their needs. It’s part
of being a man. It’s the cultural construction of masculinity.” “Elite athletes
learn entitlement (L.A. Times).”
It is this entitlement given by coaches and fans, who worship star
sports figures, that allows an athlete to abuse his spouse without having to
suffer the consequences. This sends a message to girls that “If they get hurt,
nothing will happen to the perpetrator. Girls have to stand alone.(Popa)” This
leaves women with a feeling of worthlessness. Athletes live with a different set
of rules. Dr. Tom House, a Major League Baseball coach as well as a psychologist,
believes,Athletes aren’t bad people; they just don’t have life skills. Many of
these players simply have no thermostats on their behavior mechanisms. When
they act out, they are seeking to find some balancing their environment, to
see how far they can go.And as long as they can put up good numbers on
the field, no one will create boundaries for them (qtd in American Health).
So what is being done to prevent domestic violence among athletes? Very
little. The pro league still do not punish perpetrators for their actions. But
they have created shelters and organized funds for victims of this problem. Men
are now encouraged to see specialists to solve their problem. Newspapers are
printing more articles of cases involving athletes. Now there are daily
reports of spousal abuse next to the box scores (I don’t know weather to
consider this good or bad). “Many men particularly famous athletes, are
being held accountable for behavior that was previously brushed aside (Cart).”
Lawrence Phillips, a Heisman Trophy candidate last season, was suspended
from his football team because he was charged with spousal abuse. This was done
a day after Phillips rushed for 206 yards and scored four touchdowns to give his
team the victory. His coach, Rick Osborne, was applauded for taking a stand.
Things are definitely moving forward, but not at a quick enough pace.
Rita Smith, coordinator of National Coalition Against Domestic Violence thinks,
“Professional sports needs to take a very definitive stand against violence like
it has with drugs(qtd in L.A. Times).”
Alisa DelTufo, the founder of Sanctuaries for Families, a shelter for
abused women, admits, “Domestic Violence is a very difficult cycle for a woman
to break (qtd in Sports Illustrated).” And the cycle of abuse is even harder to
break in court for a wife of an athlete. “The police often work harder
collecting autographs than evidence. The media and the fans, including those on
the jury, tend to side with the icon over the iconoclast (Callahan).”
When Sun Bonds finally decided to file a divorce, the judge, who was
a baseball fan, awarded her a sum of $7,500 per month, which is half of
what she was supposed to receive. The biased judge then asked Bonds’ for
We live in a world where men express their manliness by demeaning women.
Where men are encouraged to act aggressive and dominant. Where men when asked,
‘what are they going to do?’ after they lost a game reply, ‘I’m going home to
beat my wife (all-star, Charles Barkley).’ Unfortunately this is the reality we
live in. Sport associations need to set rules and punishments for a player who
abuses his spouse. They can punish an athlete for using drugs, why can’t they do
the same for perpetrators of domestic violence? I think coaches should
discourage the bad-mouthing of women that takes place in the locker room, and
encourage them to see counselors. The fact is as soon as an athlete puts on his
uniform for the first time; he is viewed as a role model, whether he likes it or
not. I agree that the recent attention means we are now taking domestic violence
more seriously, but the victims of abuse want solutions, not publicity.
Callahan, Gerry. “Sports Dirty Secret.” Sports Illustrated July 31, 1995: pgs
Cart, Julie. “Sex ; Violence.” The L.A. Times December 27, 1995: pgs C1-C3.
Lipsyte, Robert. “O.J. Syndrome.” American Health September, 1994: pgs 50-51.
Johnson, Vance. The Vance: The Begining and the End copyrighted 1994: pg 83.