It always happened. Whenever my sister hit me and I hit her back when we were children, I would get in trouble. And if I protested about it, she might get in a little bit of trouble, but I would always be punished more severely, and particularly if my father was around. Why? Because my parents were driving the point home as much as they could: As a man, you never hit a woman. Never.
There are exceptions to any rule, of course; everyone has the right to defend himself or herself from a violent and legitimately threatening attack.
Forgive me if I lack the imagination to come up with a plausible scenario that includes a 200-plus-pound NFL running back needing to allegedly knock his fiancee unconscious and then drag her lifeless body from an elevator in order to defend himself. Perhaps the only encouraging sign of the Ray Rice fiasco is that most people seem to share that view and haven't attempted to defend Rice's actions or his laughable "punishment" -- a two-game suspension.
There have been a few dead-enders, but the visceral disgust at the video showing Rice pulling the woman who is now his wife from the elevator and the growing awareness of the problem of domestic violence in this country have led to a consensus that what Rice did was indefensible. Rice and the Ravens have also contributed in their own way to the backlash, with a tone-deaf PR strategy that included having Rice's wife apologize for her "role" in the incident.
That doesn't mean there's been no controversy. With the explosion of sports television and websites and the emergence of social media, there are now millions of people sounding off about every development and every story. Some of them are essentially contractually obligated to have an opinion about the incident -- the more controversial, the better.
In part for that reason, I've largely decided to stay out of the discussion about Rice and his punishment. It's not really what we write about -- Rice is an NFL player who played at Rutgers, so the story has no connection to the SEC. Besides, several people have said what I would have said. Keith Olbermann did by far the best job in his scorching commentary about the NFL, and there wasn't much I felt like I could add.
Then Friday happened. And amid all the hopeful signs in the reaction to Rice's suspension came a couple of incidents that showed that we're still not quite there yet. That we all have a lot of work to do -- all of us.
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The unlikely candidate for starting some of the controversy wheels turning was Sam Ponder. That might be the first time that the word "controversy" has appeared in the same sentence as Ponder's name. She's one of the least controversial media figures in sports. But Ponder decided to fire a not-too-veiled shot at some websites, and set off a bit of a firestorm.
Blogs/websites that constantly disrespect women & objectify their bodies, then take a strong stand on the Ray Rice issue really confuse me.— Sam Ponder (@sam_ponder) July 25, 2014
Some of the websites that saw themselves as a target of that tweet responded harshly. I'm not going to link to those sites or their posts here, because they're vile and I don't care to drive any traffic to them. But the two main complaints were that Ponder was being hypocritical and was conflating two unrelated issues in domestic violence and the objectification of women.
The first criticism was what brought out some of the ugliest commentary, suggesting that part of Ponder's job was to arouse men. Which is the sort of annihilation of nuance that the Internet is really good at.
Is Ponder attractive? Yes. I think that somewhere north of 90 percent of straight men in this country would say that. And both sports and news channels long ago decided that having young, attractive people on the air was better than having unattractive or older people on the air.
But just because her looks don't hurt her job prospects doesn't mean you have the right to objectify or disrespect Ponder or any other female reporter, or any female. There's a difference between the acknowledgment of a woman's beauty and the kind of obsessive fixation on women's bodies that goes on in some parts of the sports Internet.
And, yes, that is a part of the problem here. Domestic violence and rape and misogyny often have at their root the idea that women are not just less than men, but that their main purpose is the gratification of men. Sexual and domestic violence are both power plays meant to reinforce women's "place" is society. That doesn't mean that everyone who posts a picture of Kate Upton in a bikini is condoning a man beating his wife. But it does mean that maybe we all need to be a little bit careful to make sure we're not giving comfort to people who do beat their wives.
I'm not blameless in this respect. Several years ago, I would sometimes throw a picture or two of Scarlett Johansson in various states of undress into unrelated blog posts. And it was wrong.
I'm not the only one doing some self-inspection. One of the things that made Olbermann's commentary on Rice so effective was that he didn't overlook his own past of making statements that seemed to encourage violence against women. Olbermann said the attitude of callousness that made the NFL think it could get away with a two-game suspension for Rice is "why you don't say things about prominent woman that sound violent, even if you apologize quickly, and even if you said the same things about men" -- as pictures of him, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Malkin showed up, highlighting some of his questionable comments.
Is there a bit of a double standard here? Sure. But double standards are part of life. While men also victims of domestic violence, most statistics indicate that women bear the brunt of the problem. So while we should be careful not to condone violence against or objectification of anyone out of normal human decency, we have to be particularly careful when it comes to how we talk about women.
Whether it's fair or not isn't really the issue. It's like when my sister would hit me and I would hit her back -- it's about the message we're sending. To the man who might think that beating his wife is normal because he doesn't see her as an equal in the relationship, we have to make it clear that he's wrong.
It was slightly less of a surprise that Stephen A. Smith caused a bit of a stir when he decided to talk about the issue. After all, he did so on "First Take," a show that is devoted to generating controversial discussions about sports. Smith started his commentary with the common-sense intro: You never hit a woman, etc. Then things took a turn.
But what I’ve tried to employ the female members of my family, some of who you all met and talked to and what have you, is that again, and this what, I’ve done this all my life, let’s make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions, because if I come, or somebody else come, whether it’s law enforcement officials, your brother or the fellas that you know, if we come after somebody has put their hands on you, it doesn’t negate the fact that they already put their hands on you. So let’s try to make sure that we can do our part in making sure that that doesn’t happen. [Emphasis added]
After even ESPN colleague Michelle Beadle called out Smith on Twitter, he tried to tweet out a "clarification" of his stance. It didn't make things better. He tried again with one long tweet that said he was misinterpreted, which would be worth considering if there were any other way to interpret his comments.
Because the most charitable interpretation of the remarks is that women need to avoid doing things that could be seen by their abuser as a provocation. But that still puts the burden of avoiding abuse on the victim, and could reinforce the notions of some abusive men that their partner did something to warrant the violence he's visiting upon her.
Smith promises to further "address" his comments today -- after having a weekend to craft what he wants to say. And even if he can come up with some convincing way to explain away his statements, which I doubt, his unedited thoughts are still disturbing and still point to a strain of thought that has currency in some corners.
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In fact, if Smith was genuinely misinterpreted, perhaps that makes the point even clearer: We have to be extraordinarily careful with what we say. That doesn't come naturally to anyone in an era where we can spread opinions through Twitter and Facebook and a dozen other media in seconds. It's not original to point out those dangers, but we all need a reminder every so often.
Because I can't help think that part of what made the NFL think it could get by with a two-game suspension comes back to the way we talk about domestic violence and women in this country. The league's brass almost certainly anticipated some backlash, but probably not the vehement and near-universal condemnation that has showered down on them over the past few days. The NFL under Roger Goodell prides itself on calibrating punishments for maximum PR appeal.
Maybe that unexpected backlash is the silver lining in all of this. Maybe it shows that there is a dramatic change happening in the way we talk about and regard domestic violence. But there were still a few reasons last week to believe that we're not yet where we should be.