Friday, March 1, 2013

Roughing the Partner: Athletes and Violence Against Women

It is estimated that nearly twenty-five percent of all women will be victims of domestic violence during their life.  Domestic Violence is defined as “the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior perpetrated by an intimate partner against another.”[1]  While domestic violence impacts all types of couples, relationships involving professional athletes appear to have increased rates of domestic violence.  According to the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, in the late 1990’s, 8.5% of the general population was charged with assault, while the number was nearly 36.8% for athletes.[2]  We hear of these cases all the time in the news.  In late 2012, Jovan Belcher, an NFL player for the Kansas City Chiefs, committed suicide after he shot and killed Kasandra Perkins, his girlfriend and mother of his infant daughter.[3]  Brandon Marshall, a wide receiver for the Denver Broncos has been involved in several domestic violence incidents––police have been called to his home on at least eight separate occasions for domestic violence.[4]  Marshall has also been charged with assaulting a woman at a nightclub in New York.  Manny Ramirez, once one of the Major League Baseball’s stars, was arrested for battery after hitting his wife.[5]  These are just a few examples of hundreds.
 A 2010 survey performed by Jeff Benedict, a professor who specifically studies athletes and crime, found that in the first six months of 2010, twenty percent of all professional and college athlete arrests were for violence against women.[6]  Why do athletes engage in domestic violence more than the general public?  Many assert that the reason is that they are not held accountable by the leagues or by the criminal justice system.

There are calls for the professional leagues to do more regarding professional and college athlete domestic violence.  Because these would be civil remedies since the leagues cannot create criminal punishments or sanctions, I won’t go into them in detail.  However, the main arguments are that players who are convicted, or even just arrested for domestic violence, should face punishment from employers such as suspensions or docked pay.  There are problems with this theory however.  In most cases, members of the general population are not punished for acts that occur when they are not working.  What makes professional athletes different?  Some would argue that playing sports is not the type of employment that should require adherence to a moral code.  The most effective way to curb domestic violence rates among professional athletes is by actively prosecuting the cases and requiring a batterer intervention program as part of sentencing.  

Domestic Violence is a crime in every state.  However, the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes asserts that while members of the general population accused of domestic violence are convicted eighty percent of the time, the number is only thirty-eight percent for athletes.  States vary in the methods of prosecuting the crime.  Alaska for example, has a law that requires police to arrest a suspect if there is probable cause that domestic violence has occurred.  This mandatory arrest law has its critics who claim it is a constitutional violation.  Among other arguments, critics say that suspects are being punished before they are convicted of a crime, which violates the suspect’s rights.[7]  Today, seven states have mandatory arrest laws for domestic violence.[8]  Other criminal justice efforts are “no drop” policies in prosecution offices, which require prosecutors to pursue domestic violence cases even if the victim no longer wishes to.  One of the purposes of these laws is to remove some of the discretionary power of prosecutors to drop domestic violence cases.  This would be particularly useful for prosecution against athletes, who prosecutors may be more willing to drop charges against.  If they are required to pursue the charges, then the suspect gets charged regardless of their popularity or status. 

What are not needed are harsher laws, but rather that the laws in place are actually enforced.  One of the main functions of the criminal system is deterrence.  If athletes knew that they would be prosecuted and punished each time they committed and act of violence, the rates would more than likely decrease.  If they were convicted and sentenced to jail and/or prison time, like other members of the public, the rates would probably decrease.  If this happened, it would also remove some of the cry for league punishment.  Because if a player is in jail or prison, he cannot play in games and would not be paid or be a part of the team for however long he was incarcerated.  By holding athletes responsible for the domestic violence acts they perpetrate, the criminal system can decrease the occurrence.

Another effective method of decreasing domestic violence among athletes is by requiring batterer intervention programs (BIP) as part of the sentence.  A BIP is usually a court-mandated program (but in some cases can be voluntary) that is meant to address an offender’s attitudes towards violence and their victim with the hope of decreasing re-arrest and re-conviction rates.[9]  One reason that these programs might be particularly useful for athletes is that many believe athletes are predisposed to commit violence against their partners because of ways they have been trained to think.[10]  As part of being an athlete, they are taught that they need to appear aggressive and intimidating to their opponents.  It is hard to shut this off when the individual has to engage in other relationships, so they continue to act aggressively.  If this is true, then it is necessary that the criminal justice system not only punishes them if they commit violent crimes, but also provides therapy in order to prevent re-occurrence.

While there may be some disagreement as to whether athletes actually commit more domestic violence than their counterparts in the general population, there should be no disagreement that they should be prosecuted at the same rate as other members of the population.  Considering the role and the notoriety that professional athletes have in American society and abroad, they should be held to the same standards as the rest of us.  The criminal justice system should not give them a free pass or pretend like this problem does not exist.

Bethany J. Peak
Blogger, Criminal Law Brief

[1] Domestic Violence Facts, National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, available at
[2] Statistics, National Coalition Against Violent Athletes,
[4] Justin Peters, No, Seriously, the NFL Really Does Have a Domestic Violence Problem, Slate, Dec. 4, 2012,
[5] Anna North, The Link Between Athletes And Domestic Violence, Sep. 13, 2011,
[6] Jemele Hill, End The Silence About Domestic Violence, ESPN, Dec. 4, 2012,
[7] Paul A. Clark, Mandatory Arrest for Misdemeanor Domestic Violence: Is Alaska's Arrest Statute Constitutional?, 27 Alaska L. Rev. 151, 160 (2010).
[8] Thomas L. Hafemeister, If All You Have Is A Hammer: Society's Ineffective Response to Intimate Partner Violence, 60 Cath. U. L. Rev. 919, 1001 (2011) (noting the states are Connecticut, Maine, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Utah, and Wisconsin)
[9] See Jonathan J. Houston, Batterers’ Intervention Program Analysis, Justice Assistance, Apr. 11, 2011 (noting that in a recent nationwide study only “19.8% of those enrolled in BIPs re-offended – 39.4% of whom re-offended by driving with a suspended driver’s license”).
[10] Bethany P. Withers, The Integrity of the Game: Professional Athletes and Domestic Violence, 1 Harv. J. Sports & Ent. L. 145, 148 (2010).


  1. I would be willing to bet that military combat-trained men could fall into the same category as athletes. While I agree that more methods to decrease domestic violence are needed, I also think that conversation should happen to address what is available to the receivers of the abuse. I would imagine that the wealth of our athletes add to the willingness of some victims to not only continue to be abused, but fail to report it.

  2. I think this blogger brought out some excellent points. The blog is very informative! I didn't realize, that the number of domestic violence cases against professional athletes was so high. We have put too many of our athletes on a pedestal and requard them much higher than we should! Now, they expect preferential treatment, when they commit a crime.

    I like the "no drop" policy, because once there is a domestic violence charge the suspect should be charged, tried and convicted, if they are guilty. Let's face it, many times the victim is afraid to pursue the case.

    The point, that the blogger brought out on therapy is an excellent idea. It's very important to keep this violence from re-occurring.

    Thank you, Bethany Peak, for another great and informative blog!