The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 19, 2014

The NFL sparks a national conversation about violence against women

September 19, 2014

Much has already been said about Ray Rice’s assault against his then-fiancé, Janay Rice; the NFL’s repeated fumbling in reaction to the case; and the league’s recent handling of domestic violence and child abuse allegations against other players. NFL sponsors have now joined in the outrage, putting greater pressure on the NFL to deal with the issues of violence in their players’ homes.

When Rice’s story first unfolded several months ago, I thought it would be a blip on our 24-hour news cycle. But I was wrong. This story has persisted and grown, leading to long overdue conversations about violence against women. The sustained focus and coverage in the national media and elsewhere are new. Also new is the unprecedented pressure to address the issue.

This frenzy, ironically coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Violence Against Women Act, has reinforced a few things for me.

(1)    First, how far we have come. Society has moved on this issue. Between 1994, when VAWA was first passed, and 2011, the rate of serious intimate partner violence against women declined by 72 percent, from 5.9 victimizations per 1,000 females to 1.6 per 1,000. Attitudes seem to have also changed as evidenced by the nearly universal feeling that the NFL did not go far enough when levying the original two-game suspension for Ray Rice.

(2)    Second, how far we still need to go to prevent intimate partner and sexual violence. The latest national data show that one of four women report being a victim of severe physical violence, and one in five women report having been raped at some point in their lives. Although these statistics have gone down, far too many women are still victims of these types of crimes.

(3)    And third, how much we still blame the victims. As I, like many, consume the endless news loops on the NFL and domestic violence, we see commentators raise objections to Janay Rice’s behavior. We hear how she apologized for her role in her assault—as if being knocked unconscious was somehow her fault. We have heard people question her decisionmaking, her character, her life.

Similarly, CBS recently dropped music by Rihanna from their Thursday Night football program, claiming that they are “moving in a different direction” and that her past as a victim of domestic violence played a role in the decision. If she had been the victim of a robbery, rather than intimate partner violence, would the network have taken the same course?

As we continue the national dialogue on the NFL and violence against women, we have a unique moment to direct this heightened awareness toward research-backed policies and programs that keep women safe. Will this be our country’s turning point?

Follow Janine Zweig on Twitter.

Photo: Janet and Ray Rice. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

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