Comment of the Day: “Ethics Dunce: ESPN”


I know I have written a lot about the Ray Rice domestic abuse case and its aftermath, most recently this morning, regarding CNN’s Carol Costello’s warped argument for suspending ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith. (The Rice-related posts are here, here, here and here, with an earlier Comment of the Day here.) I keep coming back to it because it involves many ethics issues: sports and violence, the “Star Syndrome,” and the special treatment of cultural celebrities, race, domestic abuse, women’s enabling of domestic abusers, political correctness, scapegoating, corporate cowardice, incompetent journalism, and more.  Chris Marschner’s recent comment on one of those posts is better than anything I’ve written on the topic, I think. As is often demonstrated here, the readers make Ethics Alarms work.

One connection I didn’t make until I read Chris’s comment is the relevance of the Gaza crisis and the public’s reaction to it to some of the ethical principles involved. There is no question that Hamas provoked a violent attack by Israel, knowing that women and children would be harmed, and that Israel would be condemned by many as a consequence. Israel is much more powerful than Palestinian forces, and provoking it to defend itself when the inevitable results will be harm to the powerless is irresponsible. Yet we hear the same absolutist reactions to the Gaza casualties that are at the root of the anger focused on Smith’s comments. The victims of violence are never responsible in any way, and suggesting otherwise is immoral.

It’s a very flawed analogy in other respects. The civilians are not the ones provoking Israel, for example, though Hamas represents them–their harm is harm to Gaza, and therefor Hamas. Most of all, Israel is not an abuser, though I could quote many commentators who regard it as one, and who might see the comparison with Ray Rice as apt.

Here is Chris Marschner’s Comment of the Day on the post, Ethics Dunce: ESPN:

I have been watching this story unfold for several days and it prompted me to do a bit of research before I weighed in on my obviously biased male perspective.

I grew up in a family that was not immune from some aspects of domestic abuse. I was taught at an early age by my very liberal parents to never hit a girl and to walk away from a fight. On its face, it is impossible to argue with such teachings. But, it is hard to reconcile those lessons when I was the recipient of physical retaliation when I was deemed to be behaviorally out of line. This was especially apparent when I was on the losing end of a back hand across the face from my father during a family birthday party for my older brother in April of 1968 for uttering the dreaded N word out of frustration after just being beaten and bloodied by a group of 8 black males that decided they wanted my baseball glove and bat. I was later told that my father was concerned that if I used that term publically I could be in more serious trouble at the hands of even more violent people. Such a great rationalization if there ever was one.

Because I was much larger (fatter) than most of the children in the neighborhood I was seen as bigger and stronger than virtually everyone. My size was often referred to as being 5 by 5. I learned that no matter what the provocation, I would lose because only my behavior would be considered. I learned early on that I had to endure a never ending barrage of verbal and physical attacks without resorting physical retaliation. Over the years I began to realize what I really learned was the hypocrisy of violence and the use of the threat of violence.

I now understand that that violence can take many forms; physical, psychological and now economic violence. The purpose of violence is to exert control over another by raising the costs of non-compliance. Now, not all economic sanctions leveled against another are acts of violence to assert control but if the intent is to hurt another to gain compliance to your line of thinking then in my book it’s violence. This is what is happening to Mr. Smith at ESPN. Exactly what did Smith do? He is a commentator on sports. He opines. That is his job. This was a sports related story. Was it his job to pile on to the outrage of Rice’s behavior or to give his honest opinion on the matter? Ironically, the NFL has a penalty for “piling on”.
Would he have been suspended if he suggested that quarterback X is better than quarterback Y. I doubt it. I also don’t think he would have been suspended if he opined in the affirmative on Israel’s use of force in the Gaza. Muzzling countervailing opinion’s or alternative points of view is the first tactic in perpetrating violence and control over another. Because of this we have been taught to believe that men are the perpetrators of virtually all violence. I can’s count how many times I have heard the phrase “too much testosterone in the room”. Is such a phrase designed to emasculate or ridicule male opinion? Could be. I submit that it is designed to suppress the expression of such male opinions thus elevating the female perspective in various matters.

The NFL is sanctioning Rice to a two game suspension; a punishment felt by many as insufficient in light of the perceived crime committed by Rice. Because I rarely follow sports, I have only seen the footage of Rice dragging the woman out of the elevator. Taken alone, is that sufficient evidence of a crime? I don’t think so. There must be more. Assuming there is, then advocates for better protection against domestic violence should be demanding legislation to force prosecution of the perpetrator regardless of the alleged victim’s wishes.

I wonder if Smith would have been suspended if he quoted information from some of the scholarly articles written about violence instead of offering his own lay opinion. Perhaps if all studies were considered, a more appropriate act would be the Violence Against Intimate Partners and Family Members Act instead of being one sided and gender specific.

Below is the source of my information and a few of the abstracts from 200 different scholarly studies that have researched domestic violence.

Brush, L. D. (1990). Violent Acts and injurious outcomes in married couples: Methodological issues in the National Survey of Families and Households. Gender & Society, 4, 56-67. (Used the Conflict Tactics scale in a large national survey, n=5,474, and found that women engage in same amount of spousal violence as men.)

Felson, R. B., & Pare, P. (2005). The reporting of domestic violence and sexual assault by nonstrangers to the police. Journal of Marriage and Family, 67, 597-610. (Authors analyzed data from The National Violence Against Women Survey, and found that “male victims are particularly reluctant to report assaults by their female partners.” Reasons for nonreporting include: fear of reprisal, thought that police could do nothing to help and charges would not be believed

Felson, R. B., & Outlaw, M. (2007). The control motive and marital violence. Violence and Victims, 22, 387-407. (Study based on an analysis of data obtained through the National Violence Against Women Survey . Authors looked at 10,000 respondents out of 16,000 total sample who were currently married. Results reveal that adult women are just as controlling and jealous toward their male partners as the other way around. Also report that, “While controlling spouses in current marriages are more likely to act violently there is no evidence that this relationship is gendered.”)

Capaldi, D. M., Kim, H. K., & Shortt, J. W. (2007). Observed initiation and reciprocity of physical aggression in young at-risk couples. Journal of Family Violence, 22 (2) 101-111. (A longitudinal study using subjects from the Oregon Youth and Couples Study. Subjects were assessed 4 times across a 9 year period from late adolescence to mid-20’s. Findings reseal that young women’s rate of initiation of physical violence was “two times higher than men’s during late adolescence and young adulthood.” By mid-20’s the rate of initiation was about equal. Mutual aggression increased the likelihood of injury for both men and women.)

Bottom line: Violence is an act perpetrated by the weak and insecure to gain compliance when the perceived cost of violence is less than the cost of non-compliance. Violence is reduced when the perceived cost of violence is higher vis’ a vis’ non-compliance.

11 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “Ethics Dunce: ESPN”

  1. Great post, Chris. As to your question pertaining to whether Smith would have been suspended if he presented a more scholarly approach to the issue…

    Probably so. Unfortunately, I don’t think the women (and men) who were outraged by Rice’s behavior were wanting to have any kind of dialogue on mutual aggression in domestic relationships. It muddies the water and people generally don’t like to think too hard. Any talk of mutual aggression doesn’t produce a clear cut good person vs. bad person and makes it harder for people to find a target in order to ban together, rant, and try to outdo one another in their moral superiority by thinking up ways to make the bad person suffer. People don’t seem to care much about acquiring more knowledge or even ascertaining the truth regarding a person or event. They just want an outlet for their emotion or agenda. And Rice has lent himself perfectly to this emotional outlet. He hit his girlfriend and she is shown unconscious on tape while he is trying to move her as if she is a sack of potatoes. So don’t go mucking things up with scholarly ideas of women being aggressive in relationships also. You will ruin the hate high and the special sense of belonging to a group who is suffering from indignation. This makes them special and very important. By the way, I read this morning that Rice’s girlfriend was charged also. She admitted that she hit Rice several times before he laid her out. But I’m going to just forget that I read that because I don’t want to come across as blaming the victim. A woman should be able to hit a man or do whatever else she wants to do to the man without having to worry about the man hitting her back.

    • “A woman should be able to hit a man or do whatever else she wants to do to the man without having to worry about the man hitting her back.”

      What??? Her, for example?

      That makes no sense to me at all. Men have a right to protect themselves. Using excessive force is wrong, but if necessary, striking a woman is reasonable.

      • You beat me to it.

        By the way, I think I already mentioned around here the story my mother told me about her upbringing as an Irish immigrant in a small French village near Paris (i.e., not in the sticks), that contributed to her decision to re-emigrate later. As there were “effective” laws against beating wives, girlfriends, etc., it became a point of pride among the local women to provoke violence so they could show off their bruises as evidence that their men cared enough about them to risk punishment. Not only did the laws fail in their intention, but also it told my mother how deranged that culture was in terms of her own values.

        • I think, upon re-reading, you are probably correct. The problem is that many, many people believe that, and sarcasm that doesn’t clearly signal its meaning is dangerous.

          Sorry Sharon…if indeed that was sarcastic.
          The truth is, I just wanted to have an excuse to post that photo…

  2. Chris, I very much like the idea of your “Violence Against Intimate Partners and Family Members Act” because it would address the problem more realistically. The notion that only women can be the victims has always gotten my hackles up. The Atlantic had an article on LGBT domestic violence last fall as a hidden epidemic and (gasp) it was reported that even female partners beat each other up. No gender-specificity there.

    Your bottom line is spot on as well, but unless and until we get rid of political correctness and euphemisms and hyper-sensitive feelings and the notion that what a violent person says while he/she is beating the hell out of somebody is worse than the physical damage inflicted, nothing will change.

    • Thanks for your comment. Regarding your points on PC I do agree. I would go a step farther by saying that the victimization mentality may be self-reinforcing. The ability of the bully to assert his/her power is based on the bullies perception of weakness of the person being bullied. If the perceived weaker party feels he or she may gain more benefits by remaining a victim then there is no reason to change the situation.

      Consider the elements of a child’s tantrum: The child demands something the parent will not provide (the child is the victim of the parent’s failing to deliver the desired demand), the child begins to scream, stomp, hold his/her breath etc.; a parent that gives in and gives the the child the object of desire the child learns that the tantrum will get the desired result. If the parent takes the child out of the area and does not give in the child ceases the behavior.

      By extension, some (many) victims of abuse will find that they receive a great deal of support and thus they may feel that they have gained. While most support agencies are well meaning but they impose no consequences on the client if the client does not take an affirmative action to prevent the situation from happening again. Advocacy groups focus on demanding the legal system force a change in the aggressor’s behavior.

      If the victim now believes that the power curve has shifted, such that the victim is under the assumption that she/he has no obligation to affect change and any demand by society will be deemed a new assault on the victim, then what incentive is there for any introspection or change in life strategy. In short, the price of being on the wrong side of the abuse is outweighed by the gains made in terms of her/his worth as viewed by society. The victim has expanded her/ his circle of allies and supporters that validate the victim’s behavior without question or condemnation.

      Only by holding the victim responsible for making positive changes to avoid the abuse (leave him/her) will the cycle of violence end.

      With respect to Mr. Smith at ESPN. If he counseled a son or daughter to NOT flash large sums of money in public – especially in high crime areas, would that be blaming the victim if the advice was ignored and the son or daughter got robbed. Somewhat, while the culpability is primarily on the robber, the victim in this case provoked a response that was easily foreseeable.

      The same is true when victims of spousal abuse continue to subject themselves to spousal violence offering up myriad reasons why they are stuck in that situation and cannot affect a change. Sometimes, holding the victim somewhat accountable makes sense because, if effective, it prevents a recurrence of the violence.

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