Is the Sports World Ready for a Zero-Tolerance Policy on Violence Against Women?

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When NFL Hall of Famer Warren Sapp tweeted a picture of a lipstick-shaped vibrator, it was funny. Watching public figures melt down is one of Twitter’s greatest and most perverse pleasures, especially since they could — technically — refrain from tweeting anything at all (oh, that we should all have such wisdom). Sapp had decided to tweet his defense against allegations that he, along with several of his former colleagues at NFL Network, had engaged in a pattern of harassment: speaking about his sex life with his colleagues, showing the alleged victim nude photos of women he’d been with, and giving her sex toys (like the one he tweeted about, insisting that it was “not sexual”) for Christmas three years in a row.

Less funny was what I realized after a cursory Google: Sapp has a history of violence against women. A history of violence against women that actually coincided with his tenure at NFL Network, and would ultimately cost him his job — though not before he’d spent almost a decade on the air.

The day before Super Bowl XLIV, the University of Miami and Bucs star was arrested in Miami Beach on a misdemeanor domestic battery charge. The victim alleged that Sapp choked her and threw her to the ground — the arrest affidavit said she had bruises on her neck and a swollen knee. Sapp had been scheduled to be part of the network’s 2010 Super Bowl coverage, but they took him off the air (without explanation, despite the obvious newsworthiness of an NFL legend being arrested for domestic violence) during the investigation. The charges were eventually dropped when the evidence was deemed inconsistent, Sapp returned to his post, and all was well. The incident is chronicled in a Complex listicle titled “A History of Super Bowl Shenanigans” that thoughtfully explains how exactly Sapp “dodged a bullet.”

Five years later, Sapp was arrested in Phoenix just hours after the conclusion of Super Bowl XLIX. Two prostitutes alleged he’s assaulted them when they pressed him for payment. He was terminated by NFL Network within hours, and ultimately took a plea deal. Six months after that, he was arrested yet again when his girlfriend alleged he bit her finger and stepped on her head. Again, he took a plea deal.

Sapp’s story is not all that unique, unfortunately, but it illustrates a fundamental problem with what’s being called the post-Weinstein “reckoning” — the slew of men and women who have come forward with harassment and assault allegations since the investigative corroboration of long-kept open secrets about Weinstein’s predatory behavior. Weinstein’s crimes were against his colleagues, which created a convenient filter for men’s (and it is almost exclusively men’s) bad behavior: the workplace. Work is sacred in America; the myth of the meritocracy even moreso. The fact that people might see opportunities denied them because they work for or with a creep offends all but the most hard-headed of observers (Matt Damon). What was the point of civil rights movements if vulnerable populations can’t also be afforded the privilege of working towards constructed ideals of material success until they die?

I have to imagine this is why I keep seeing people saying they don’t understand why it’s taken so long for this simultaneously tragic and liberating trend to hit sports. There is a clear gender discrepancy in this field — the law of averages would suggest that harassment is rampant, if only because there are so many men. Those people, the ones waiting for the post-Weinstein sports-specific “reckoning,” are getting the catharsis they’re looking for: Warren Moon, Jerry Richardson, ESPN, and NFL Network have all been named in various suits and investigations, and there are almost certainly more to come.

To act like allegations of workplace harassment are new in the sports world, though, is the worst kind of amnesia. Just this summer, the president of Fox Sports was fired after a sexual harassment investigation; the women who came forward about his behavior aren’t framed as part of a movement.

To act like allegations of violence against women (a category many of these harassment allegations fit into) are new in the world of sports is delusional, and to willfully misunderstand the end goal of creating an environment in which women feel they can express when they are being exploited. In sports, organizations at every level have been forced to grapple with violence — sexual and otherwise — for decades. If people can’t understand the connection between Ezekiel Elliott (allegedly) exposing a woman’s breast on a parade float and Eric Davis (allegedly) touching a woman’s vagina at work, why are we even bothering? Why can’t we see that Ray Rice knocking out his fiancee in an elevator exists on the same spectrum as Warren Moon (allegedly) drugging his assistant and removing her clothes? What is the point of a safer workplace without a safer world?

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[Warren Moon, by the way, previously settled a sexual harassment case and faced repeated allegations of domestic violence.]

To be clear, I’m as relieved as anyone that violence against women finally is getting the A1 treatment instead of languishing in the footnotes. I’m reassured that women’s voices are being heard, that for once their suffering is being greeted with sympathy instead of skepticism. The reason why, though — and the reason why there appears to be a new statute of limitations and range of jurisdiction on relevant allegations that dates from the day we got Harvey Weinstein out of the paint to right now, exclusively for people who’ve been harmed by men they met professionally — chills me. It’s a liability issue. Having men around who are known to engage in predatory behavior opens companies up to lawsuits, and as more and more women muster the courage to go public, that threat — of cutting into profit margins for sexual harassment settlements — looms ever larger. Off-the-clock violence against women is omitted from this narrative because there’s no real consequence for letting it slide.

Professional and collegiate athletics programs have long struggled with the question of whether there should be consequences at work for violence and harassment outside of work. The NFL implemented its “violent criminal activity” policy in 1998 after a slew of player arrests through the mid-’90s (and also racism) inspired observers to coin it the “National Felony League.” For the first time, players were subject to potential suspensions for crimes. The NFL — yes that NFL — was attempting to become the standard-bearer for how sports dealt with off-the-field violence. The first suspension for domestic violence wouldn’t come until 2000, when the Cardinals’ Mario Bates was suspended for one game after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor domestic violence charge. A study during the 1996–97 season done by Jeff Benedict and Don Yaeger (who wrote Pros and Cons: The Criminals Who Play in the NFL…so yes, they have an angle) found at least 45 domestic violence-related arrests among active players — Bates was far from the only player charged in the two years after the policy was enacted, but he was the only one who pled guilty in court.

The league’s policy was a circus then and it’s a circus now, as Roger Goodell attempts to enforce seemingly arbitrary consequences — even in cases that get dropped by the criminal justice system. A valiant effort to be sure, given that most domestic violence and sexual assault goes unreported (and that even when it is reported, courts usually fail to indict the perpetrator — hi Kesha) — but one that’s futile and ultimately motivated by a desire to “protect the shield” and thus profits, not victims. “I now think the NFL underestimated how difficult it would be to adjudicate cases without formal charges, and I’ve come to believe that a rigid punishment policy is dangerous for victims,” ESPN’s Mina Kimes wrote earlier this year about the Chiefs’ Tyreek Hill, who entered the NFL under the shadow of a gruesome assault on his then-pregnant girlfriend. Coming up with enforceable, effective consequences for violence outside the game remains a challenge across professional sports, for players and coaches alike; while you don’t want someone who’s charged with rape representing your team or league, does it really make sense to offer the same repercussions you might for unsportsmanlike conduct?

In this catch-22, we see the challenges inherent in looking at the post-Weinstein accusations as a sea change rather than a step. Narrowing one’s focus to workplace harassment (almost exclusively done by public-facing or high-ranking figures, also) or professional sports may initially seem like a more efficient way to change how we, as a culture, treat women. If public figures admit wrongdoing, maybe the power of their example will dissuade more anonymous abusers. Maybe the fear of similar consequences will keep them on their best behavior (everyone has reason to fear firing for off-duty incidents: progressive HR boilerplate suggests that all domestic and sexual violence be subject to company policy and investigation, though in practice regular companies have as much trouble enforcing this standard as the NFL does).

But without looking at systemic sexism and violence holistically, you wind up playing Whack-A-Sexist with required performative contrition as a mallet. You wind up with Warren Sapp allegedly harassing a colleague for years after his employer knew that at the very least he treated women poorly, and most likely also violently. You wind up with Warren Moon allegedly abusing his assistant after spending decades allegedly abusing his now-ex-wife. These ecosystem-specific consequences are surrogate movements intended to compensate for a criminal justice system incapable of dealing with domestic violence, sexual assault, and workplace harassment. Trying to divide and conquer violence against women and systemic inequality is tempting, but as Rebecca Traister pointed out in a recent column, it just doesn’t work.

“None of this is simple; none of it is easy; it’s increasingly difficult to parse and to live through,” she wrote for New York Magazine. “That’s precisely because what we’re picking apart is not some single thread; it’s the knotted weave of inequity that is the very stuff of which our professional and political and social assumptions and institutions are made.”

Sure, men in power from sports to Hollywood to media to politics are currently being publicly shamed and then fired. But Peyton Manning is still the Nationwide spokesperson despite the fact that everyone knows about his alleged workplace assault. Kobe Bryant still sells sneakers and Ben Roethlisberger still quarterbacks. Hell, Trump and Bill Cosby are still sitting pretty despite overwhelming evidence they are habitual abusers who often use the workplace as an arena for their exploits. Like them, most of the men “brought down” won’t be facing any legal repercussions. Harvey Weinstein and Russell Simmons are looking at charges; everyone else gets to stay quiet for a year or two until people forget (or even sooner, given the pace of the news cycle today) and they can pitch a redemption narrative.

The trend — zero tolerance for men who abuse — is a myth, in sports and everywhere else. That is probably for the best; as Deadspin’s Diana Moscovitz put it, “Sports leagues [or any other non-government organization] shouldn’t be in the business of playing police, judge, and jury.” Maybe soon we’ll figure out a way to make abusive men concede their wrongdoing in a way that’s therapeutic for their victims, instead of triggering. Maybe these conversations that our “reckoning” has inspired will promote policy change, so we can delegate most of the hand-wringing about bad men to the courts (yes, this is far-fetched given our unjust justice system — a girl can dream) and spend that time celebrating the women who should take their place in our public discourse instead.

Right now, though, there are still no real consequences for men who hurt women. And neither Louis C.K. losing production credits nor Ezekiel Elliott missing the fantasy playoffs is going to change that.

Writing music & sports.

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