Manny Ramirez's recent domestic violence arrest is one of a string of such arrests among pro athletes. Is there something about the culture of sports that fosters violent behavior? And if so, what can leagues do about it?
Ramirez, who played for the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Indians and Rays before retiring after testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs, was arrested last night for battery. He allegedly slapped his wife Juliana so that her head hit the headboard of their bed. His version of events is a little stranger: he told a deputy that "he grabbed his wife by the shoulders and when he shrugged her, she hit her head." It's not clear what it means to "shrug" someone, but a Florida court has already barred him from contact with his wife pending a trial.
The former slugger is far from the first professional athlete to be accused of domestic violence. Padres outfielder Brian Giles was sued by an ex-girlfriend for domestic abuse in 2008 (though he claimed she abused him). NFL running back Lawrence Phillips was involved in multiple domestic violence cases throughout his career, including one in which he allegedly choked a woman until she lost consciousness. Mike Tyson's ex-wife Robin Givens accused him of abusing her during their marriage. And Bleacher Report has a whole list of more. So does being a pro athlete predispose people to violence?
Scott Goll of Bleacher Report thinks it may. Discussing the accusations against Giles, he wrote,
Pro athletes, I theorize, are used to getting what they want. They get the attention. They get the money. To some extent, I believe there's a sense of entitlement.
So what happens when athletes who are more predisposed to the me-first attitude are in what's supposed to be a relationship of equals? If there's a difference of opinion, some of them impose their will. If their will is not accepted by their partner, then perhaps the frustration mounts to a point where it becomes physical.
In a 2010 paper published in Harvard's Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law, Bethany Withers looked at the data:
[E]vidence is inconclusive regarding whether athletes are more likely to commit violent acts against women. The San Diego Union-Tribune reviewed news reports and public records from January 2000 to April 2007 and concluded that the biggest problems for NFL players were the same as those of the general population: drunken driving, traffic stops, and repeat offenses. Further, it concluded that the arrest rate among NFL players was less than that of the public population. In an April 2008 update to the study, the Union-Tribune found that the NFL's arrest rate since 2000 was better than that of the rest of society — there was approximately one arrest per forty-seven players per year compared with one arrest per twenty-one for the general population.
"Nonetheless," she wrote, "there is evidence that professional athletes are not punished by the leagues, teams, or criminal justice system as harshly or consistently as their general public counterparts. For example, in 1995, domestic violence cases involving athletes resulted in a thirty-six percent conviction rate, as compared to seventy-seven percent for the general public." So while the attention, money, and power that Goll cites may not make athletes more violent, these factors may well help them get away with violence. Goll proposes a remedy for this:
If these violent athletes respect only their power, their money, their control over everything, then only one thing can be done to mitigate it: Take it all away.
You beat your wife and harm your marriage, your relationship, your public perception, and your team's image: You lose your job.
Withers concurs, arguing that professional leagues should adopt "personal conduct policies" that punish players for domestic violence convictions as well as for "reprehensible conduct that does not result in conviction." She writes,
For such conduct, the league should implement a "three strikes, you're out" policy under which a player would be suspended for a minimum of one game following a third transgression. [...] Since domestic violence charges rarely result in conviction, a three-strikes policy would be particularly effective for this offense. While there is always the fear that, without conviction, an innocent player may be punished, a three-strikes policy would help eliminate the chances of this occurring.
Interestingly, Withers notes that NFL players have actually been in favor of a three-strikes policy. Maybe some pro athletes don't like being thought of as thugs who abuse the women in their lives — and maybe they'd be on board with steps to punish those who do.