Sports and Domestic Violence: All Blacks’ Julian Savea Is Latest Athlete To Be Charged

[Content note: domestic abuse, emotional abuse, murder, and suicide, mainly at links]

Savea is standing in front of a microphone bank. He is looking down, wiping his right eye with his righ band. He is wearing a black button-up shirt.

Julian Savea reading his prepared statement about his assault charged.

The news out of New Zealand this weekend:

The 22-year-old winger, [Julian Savea], who appeared on posters last year in support of a government-led campaign against family violence, was charged in relation to an assault last Sunday.

Savea released a statement:

Whilst I can’t go into the details because it is now before the courts, I understand that the details will come out in due course. But I will say that my partner and I did have an argument, I did some things that are wrong and that I shouldn’t have done and I apologise for that. To my partner and her family I just want to say that I’m sorry to hurt someone that you love and care so much for. To be in this situation, I know it’s hurting them and it’s definitely hurting me, so I apologise to them.

It is not hard to create a list of professional male athletes who have been perpetrators in domestic violence incidents:

This is not at all a complete list. And this list is not saying that professional female athletes are not perpetrators in domestic abuse (Chamique Holdsclaw) or that women are never the perpetrators in domestic abuse cases against men (that is actually fairly common between professional players and their partners).

But there is something jarring about the number of male high-profile male athletes who abuse their partners. And if you couple this with the number who are charged with other kinds of assaults, especially sexual assault, there appears to be an epidemic. It is such a widespread problem that it is easy to find lists of professional male athletes involved in violent episodes on different sports websites (especially those sites who love to make lists of things – you know who I am talking about).

I wonder, though, how much is an epidemic in sports or just an epidemic in our society that seems most obvious when it involves high-profile athletes. (There is also something to say about the way that certain crimes are more heavily punished or admonished in public than others and which type of celebrities are most harshly criticized – like, did you know that Michael Fassbender, the actor, supposedly beat up his girlfriend in a way I don’t even want to describe? Yeah. But one could also talk about which athletes are painted as malicious and which are not and why. There is a lot to say on this subject and this post is only barely getting into the thick of this issue.)

Kassandra Perkins is in a car. She's looking directly at the camera. Her curly black hair is down, parted on her right side. She isn't smiling or frowning.

Kassandra Perkins.

Following Jovan Belcher’s murder of his girlfriend Kassandra Perkins and his subsequent suicide, ESPN’s Jemele Hill wrote this:

There is no evidence that definitely proves playing sports makes athletes more prone to violence toward women than the rest of the population. But there are some statistics that do highlight some alarming trends involving male athletes.

In 2010, Jeff Benedict, an English professor at Southern Virginia University who has written extensively about athletes and crime, released a thorough examination of arrests for professional and college athletes during a sixth-month span.

There were 125 athletes arrested during that period, including 70 college football players. Domestic violence cases accounted for nearly 20 percent of the total.

Domestic violence affects 1 out of every 3 women worldwide:

  • United StatesA quarter of all women will be domestically abused in their lifetime. 1.3 million women are domestically abused each year.
  • AustraliaAccording to White Ribbon, “One woman is killed every week by a current or former partner. One in three women over the age of 15 report physical or sexual violence at some time in their lives. And domestic and family violence is the major cause of homelessness for women and their children, and a recognised form of child abuse.”
  • West Africa: The International Rescue Committee has said that, “domestic violence is the “most urgent, pervasive and significant protection issue for women in west Africa.”
  • Brazil: “every 24 seconds a woman is beaten by her partner or ex-partner in Brazil.”
  • Argentina: “Another report released by an NGO, Femicide Observatory, claims that one woman dies per day due to gender violence in Argentina, usually at the hands of their partner or former partner.”
  • South Africa: “the World Health Organization last year reported that some sixty thousand women and children in South Africa were victims of domestic violence on a monthly basis—the highest reported rate in the world.”
  • New Zealand: “Between 33 to 39% of New Zealand women experience physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime.”
  • United Kingdom: “two women per week are killed by current or ex-partners, and that one in four women will experience domestic violence in their lifetime”

These are not even the statistics for the number of women assaulted each year that fall outside of the “domestic” category.

There is one important difference between regular guys who are charged with domestic violence and professional male athletes, at least in the US. Jemele Hill again:

And even if you believe violent crimes committed by athletes aren’t more of an issue than those committed by the general population, there is research that shows the conviction rate for athletes is drastically different.

The National Coalition Against Violent Athletes cites a 1995 study that found that people in the general population accused of assault were convicted 80 percent of the time while athletes facing similar charges were only convicted 38 percent of the time. […]

Dallas domestic violence prevention rally.

Dallas domestic violence prevention rally.

It also raises questions about how violence against women is marginalized by the legal system and how some coaches, based on the weak punishments, desensitize athletes to the issue.

There is a reason that male athletes need to speak out against domestic violence, both to combat the desensitization that may be happening within their own ranks and because their platform means that men are paying attention to them when they mess up but also when they do good.

Don McPherson, a former football player and a current social justice activist, recently wrote this about the mayor of Dallas, Mike Rawlings, beginning a program in that city to galvanize men in Dallas to put a stop to domestic abuse:

Men do not just need to stop being violent. The vast majority of men are not violent. But men do need to stop being silent. Calling violence against women, whether street harassment or sexual harassment or rape or murder, a “women’s issue” allows men to ignore it as if we have no responsibility for it or stake in ending it. We all have grandmothers, mothers, sisters, daughters and female friends and colleagues. Our lives are inextricably interwoven; women’s issues of safety and equality directly affect our lives as men.

Canty sits in front of a microphone. He is wearing a gray t-shirt and has a beard. He is in the midst of speaking.

Chris Canty

Only last week, Chris Canty, a defensive lineman with the Baltimore Ravens, spoke at a domestic violence prevention seminar:

“It’s definitely something that hits home with me,” Canty told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s an issue facing a lot of households in America that we need to address. We need to communicate to young people about healthy relationships and dispel a lot of social norms.”

The single, nine-year veteran said that he personally knows of domestic violence cases, but cannot reveal details because his confidentiality with victims. Fair enough. That he’s using his platform to raise awareness of such issues is to be commended.

“I think we all know people who have been victims, whether we realize it or not,” he said. “We’ve got to stop being silent about this.”

I think that Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe have shown us the impact that football players in the US can have on discussions around issues of social justice: Ayanbadejo helped pass the first ballot initiative in the country to legalize same-sex marriage and Kluwe   spoke out against a Minnesota constitutional amendment that would have limited marriage to heterosexual couples.

One hopes that major male athletes speaking out against domestic violence can, if not help curb it, at least lift the veil of silence that often surrounds it (one that seems most often to be removed when it is male athletes who commit domestic violence).

Dez Bryant, wearing a long sleeve black pullover walks onto the stage from the right side. He is about to shake hands with the mayor. There is a crowd standing below the stage and other people sitting on the stage behind him.

Dez Bryant

At the rally in Dallas that McPherson wrote about, Dez Bryant, who appears on the list above, made a surprise appearance:

“Here’s all you need to know,” he said. “I’m done with domestic abuse.”

“I made a mistake,” Bryant told a large crowd that attended the rally spearheaded by Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings. “I just want everybody to know, it’s not good to hit women and I challenge every man out here to X all domestic violence of your life.”

I was in the crowd at Dallas that day. When Bryant said he wants people to “X” out domestic violence, he held his crossed arms up in front of his face in the shape of an “X.” I watched as young boys and men throughout the crowd mimicked him and cheered for domestic violence prevention. It was a powerful moment. The words “I made a mistake” are not ones said lightly, especially in front of football greats like Emmitt Smith and Roger Staubach (they were on stage) and in front of a crowd of thousands who were mainly men and boys, many fans of yours. [Andrea Grimes has a full report of the rally at RH Reality Check]

Yet then I see another report of another male athlete – this time in New Zealand – admitting to domestic violence and asking for forgiveness.

One step forward, one step back.

McPherson’s personal website has a list of resources and organizations that are working to end domestic violence.