Can the NFL Change Domestic Abusers? A Conversation with Beth Richie

Beth Richie is a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago with an extensive body of work in criminology, feminism, violence against women, the carceral state and the sociology of race and ethnicity. She’s the current director of the Institute of Research on Race and Public Policy, and was recently named as one of five senior advisors to the NFL’s new panel charged with creating new initiatives for domestic abuse education and prevention within the league.

How did your work become your work?

Before I was an academic, I was an activist and advocate for women and survivors of violence. And before that, I’d grown up in a household where justice and fairness and equality were central values in how our family raised us. My mom was very strong and powerful, and she passed down the firm understanding that, as black people, we were involved in a struggle around racial justice.

When I started working as a social worker in Harlem over 30 years ago, I felt that this consciousness about racial and economic justice was strong. But it became clearer to me that we had to ask: what about women? To me, one thing preventing the advancement of racial justice ideals was that women were not partners with men in that struggle. Women were still being abused by men, even within the context of racial justice. And I looked back and realized I knew women in my church and my family who were being controlled and dominated by men—that abuse was as prevalent in my community as it was anywhere else.

Race and gender and class justice can’t be separated. So I started an anti-violence program along with another group of women organizers. This was in a time when most programs of that nature were run by predominantly white women and serving predominantly white women. I kept doing training and advocacy work, and then went back to school.

And now you’re a consultant on the NFL’s new policy group. What are you most looking forward to doing in this position?

Like everyone else, I’d been watching what was going on with players, and talking in the circle of people that I work with about it—about the tragedy of this violence and harm from men towards women, of course, but also asking: who are these players, and where do they come from, and why isn’t anyone having a nuanced conversation about that? The NFL’s players are disproportionately African-American (Ed. note: approximately 66%). Without saying that race is an excuse or a cause, we still need to talk about race.

Other people were thinking about that too. I was the last advisor added to the team, and it was clear that they wanted to add someone who had a lot of experience and interest in the racial dimension—someone who would be a personal stakeholder in thinking about the African-American community as it relates to the NFL.

Yeah. I don’t want to jump into the violence issue with an oversimplification, but let me ask you—I think of violence as a semi-inevitable consequence of an imbalance of economic power, and so the racial dimension of domestic violence in the NFL seems impossible to ignore. The state over black men, men over women.

I wouldn’t even call that very oversimplified. Yes, absolutely. The understanding of violence linked only to gender will only respond to a certain part of the population. It’s imperative to take state violence into account—the misuse of state authority towards black communities in general—to understand what happens within the context of that community.

What we’re talking about means that African-American people perceive and therefore use (or don’t use) police differently. The police aren’t necessarily seen as a protective force; there’s a different loyalty to one’s own people in disclosing, there’s a protectiveness built up from the way the media skews the actions of black men. Consequently, black sexual assault survivors have to walk through a maze before they can acknowledge the abuse or are willing to come forward. There’s a different willingness to turn our men over to the state. And I don’t want to say that turning in an abuser is easy for any woman, but it’s meaningfully different for black women.

In the case of the NFL, there are almost two states we’re talking about: the larger one, and then this very powerful institution that controls people’s livelihoods and their futures and their careers in a different way. The NFL is protective of its image, its players, its teams, its place in American society, and acts accordingly. That adds a layer of complication as well.

Yes. The issue of sanctioning NFL players who perpetrate domestic violence seems to me to really relate to something you bring up in an older interview at Salon: that effectively criminalizing domestic violence in the ’90s was, within the black community, a major social good (in that it protects women) and also a serious social problem (in that the protocol is sending more men off to jail). Where does that leave us policy-wise?

Both of those things are true, and that’s what makes it hard. Police used to not be trained on this issue, but now it’s standard training in most police academies to deal with domestic violence. In some instances, this means that police respond very effectively to women who need help; it’s also the case that, in our current era, police force falls disproportionately, incorrectly, and negatively on black communities.

So, a black woman in harm’s way might call the police on her abuser. She wants the police to respond; she’s also worried that they might, you know, respond. For an abused woman to have to bear the burden of police brutality for her abuser is almost an impossible thing. So we are trying to think, not just about the NFL, what are the other ways for someone to be held accountable? For women to not have to walk this incredibly complicated path?

What would some of those other ways look like?

There are programs around the country that I’m encouraging the NFL to look at. They’re not places a huge organization would look, they’re not corporate, they’re on a much smaller scale. But there is some really interesting work being done around community accountability, where people within a given environment work with each other to figure out who’s at risk, who’s causing harm, how to bring opposing forces into the same room without causing more violence.

The hard thing about these programs is that, if you’re not careful, it can sound like you’re excusing the abuse. It can sound very similar to “Don’t arrest him, we’ll have him talk to his pastor.” We’re not talking about that. We just want something that will help women more.

The NFL got a lot of attention for its new one-strike policy. In the understanding that it’s impossible to have a blanket rule that will always be the best rule for everyone, I want to ask you: after all your experience, how do you think these incidents should be handled?

I want to be careful and say that we—the five advisors—are working on this, still trying to figure this out. But, let’s see. On the one hand, we know that violence is not an isolated incident. If it happens once, it’s probably happened before; it’s going to happen again, it’s going to get worse over time. Having a policy that says that a warning is the solution ignores everything we know about domestic violence. A warning doesn’t do anything. Repeat incidents are going to happen anyway. (Ed. note: Ray Rice’s potential reinstatement within the next four weeks has emerged in the news since this interview; Richie had no further comment aside from what’s already mentioned here.)

That’s one view. On the other hand, there are some of us who think a warning is completely sufficient. I think that we can think of a football team as a community, and if we can figure out the people with power in that community whose disapproval or witness or sanctioning will effectively change behavior—if we can identify the people whose actions will matter to the abuser, and equip them with the power to communicate that violence will not be rewarded or ignored, and have them handle it rather than say, “You’re banished forever, you’re going to prison, your short career just got much shorter”—that could be very important.

That approach would mean balancing the two most difficult things about dealing with domestic violence: first, that it’s never a one-time incident, and second, that isolating someone from their meaningful community just means that they displace their violence onto someone else. It’s incredibly hard, but between the resources of the NFL, and the expertise they’ve brought in, and the uniqueness of the institution: it will be interesting to see what we can figure out.

Can domestic abusers change their tendencies? Do you see successful rehabilitation?

I am optimistic by nature, and I do think people can be rehabilitated, can change. I don’t think we’ve figured out how to do it very well on this issue, because we don’t just have to change people; we have to change the culture they live in. That’s what distinguishes good intervention programs and those that have very short-term effects. For example, we know that men can learn to not use physical force, but can still be extremely controlling and threatening and dangerous, without ever breaking the law. Men in treatment programs usually know exactly how far they can walk up to being dangerous without being arrested, because that’s what we’ve taught them. And that doesn’t necessarily result in them treating women any better.

Is it intimidating to be working on this issue within the context of the NFL, which is so high-profile and also uniquely complicated by the physiological effects of CTE, the social effects of monetized aggression, etc?

It should have been intimidating, but it wasn’t. I took the NFL for their word that they were serious about trying to do something, and I have tremendous respect for the other advisors, who I knew wouldn’t sign up for some bogus plan. But in a way I was also naive. I follow football in a way that I go to brunch on Sundays and everyone’s always talking about the game, but I didn’t know how big of a deal this was going to be. Not to say that this feels easy, but I’ve done work in prisons that feels like the real important hard work, and suddenly I’m getting more attention for this than anything else I’ve ever done in my life.

But, naturally, professional sports has started to look different and much more complex to me in terms of the extent and depth of the race and class dynamics. Even separate from the violence, it demands our attention.

Yeah. Black male professional athletes inhabit such a fraught space: their bodies and use of considerable force as their personhood, their money, their everything. And all in a system that they don’t own.

That is very worthy of our attention. That’s a big part of what football is: the spectacle, these huge flash points of race and class and gender.

In that Salon interview, you talked how violence can become part of someone’s reality without necessarily becoming part of their accepted value system, two things that I think people often conflate. You also talk about how when domestic violence became a national issue, the framework of protection slid mostly to the elite (white, wealthy, educated). How does this affect the NFL and the wives and partners of NFL players?

Part of our work will be talking to wives and partners, and they will be a really rich source of data to help us. But what we know so far is that women don’t fit into this image of passive victims. They’re not miserable, sulking people, cowering in a corner, terrified. They’re going about their life, working, in community events. The violence is not all that they are, even though it takes up increasing space in their lives.

And this is especially true for black women in relationships with black men, who have so much at stake on top of their relationships. There’s a long rope that allows you to tolerate, excuse, minimize, deny, compartmentalize. For NFL wives and partners: it’s his money, it’s his racial vulnerability, it’s his fame, it’s maybe your class privilege over his—there are a lot of things mediating the meaning of the violence.

Allowing women the right to stay while giving them a framework to leave seems like a difficult line to walk, especially when leaving safely is much harder than most people think it is: violence increases dramatically after a woman leaves, right?

Yes. To leave is to have the ultimate confrontation of removing yourself from his control, and what he’s trying to do desperately is control you. When you say “I’m leaving,” he sees that he’s failed; his rage increases and it’s very dangerous. And of course, there are a lot of other reasons why women don’t leave. Maybe they have kids, maybe they’re economically dependent, maybe they are feeling under the microscope of the discussion about black children needing their black fathers, all that cultural narrative.

Violence is a slippery slope. It’s not like you walk in one day and he beats you up really badly. It starts with a lot of care and concern, then it slides to jealousy, which he explains by saying you’re so beautiful, and then it escalates. Abuse starts in a very different place, and it’s easy to think you can change people, or explain abuse based on circumstances, or get back to where you were. Women who are abused spend so much time navigating this: trying to comply with demands and avoid getting hurt, and also trying to hide it. Even if they’re trying to leave, maybe they can’t because there’s a big game coming up. There is a constant evaluation.

Do you ever see it that a woman decides to stay and can be safe in that decision?

Sadly, I have to say: for abuse to end, either the relationship ends or it has to change drastically. Of course, there are some really impressive cases where men have changed and women have been able to trust that it will never happen again. But who gets to decide? It’s a real question. The NFL taking this up so aggressively is very important, but there’s a real need to be careful; the NFL is an employer, not law enforcement, not family. I think they are trying to be respectful of women’s desires to make their own decisions about whom they’re with, while still holding men accountable. In order to get there, this process has to be about more than the NFL’s image. And I think they’re really taking that seriously.

They have assembled a really good team.

Yeah. Truly, I can say that I’ll feel accomplished not if the NFL “likes me,” but rather, if there’s been some real change. It’s been very easy to be straightforward, honest and clear with them. They knew what they got when they got me. Rather, I feel like I am accountable to the groups of black women who demanded there be a black woman on this policy group.

How do you keep writing about abuse, working with people on it, thinking about it, without getting emotionally overwhelmed?

Well, I have an 8-year-old daughter; it’s important to me, for obvious reasons, to work on these issues for her sake. I’ll also say that, weirdly, I’ve made the dearest friends and political alliances through this work. I have found community for myself; I go to meetings and conferences and see that people have also committed their lives to this, and I am inspired. I feel the same when I work with women in prison, when I look at what they’re living with and also know that they’re so generous and funny and resilient. I feel inspired by listening to survivors; it really helps me.

And I never feel like my job is hard, because I think what is hard is to live the kind of life we are talking about. Mine is the easy job. And I don’t mean that rhetorically; it’s truly how I feel. It’s the feeling that’s motivated me all these years.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Image via AP.

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