The last thing the NBA wants you to think about while the playoffs are in full and exciting swing is one of its most habitually toxic players pleading no contest and then being sentenced for a misdemeanor domestic violence charge.
Ron Artest is, without a doubt, the single worst role-model when it comes to active professional athletes so it comes as no surprise that though reported, it’s of little concern to the sports world when upsets and game sevens are amuk in the NBA. Artest is also one of the best defensive players in the game and, strictly for his on-court performance, one of the most sought after. So sought after, in fact, that his current team, the Sacramento Kings, agreed to take on Artest after the infamous Malice At The Palace and then stood behind him throughout the entire DV ordeal with talk about “everyone makes mistakes,” “think of the children” and “second chances.” He likely won’t be dismissed from his current team and even if he is, there are always other franchises looking for a gun-for-hire regardless of how they conduct themselves off the court.
The NBA, and professional sports in general, is extremely forgiving (if not purposefully forgetful) when it comes to their male players physically abusing their wives or girlfriends (as well as sexually assaulting women). Jason Kidd’s career survived a leaked 911 domestic violence phone call made by his then-wife Joumana which chillingly illustrated his abusive and manipulative ways (“you think they’re going to believe you?!”). Jason Richardson of the GS Warriors, Shaquille O’Neal, and yes, Kobe Bryant have all been accused/alleged/convicted in crimes ranging from DV to rape and sexual assault. But of course it’s not just basketball. In baseball, Dmitri Young received a legal slap on the wrist for his DV charge and also (and this is going to become a common theme here) had no trouble finding another team willing to do as the Maloofs did and pay him the big bucks. In the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Santonio Holmes offered no apologies for his multiple run-ins with the law which without any remorse included hitting his wife. Perhaps even more unbelievably, the Denver Broncos, in spite of player Sam Brandon’s 2005 arrest for DV, rewarded him with a contract extension in February. In other words, the message in sports is this: domestic violence is a completely forgiveable crime and your career or paycheck is never in jeopardy (at least for long) when you hit your wife, bash her head onto the hood of your car (Julio Lugo of the Boston Red Sox) or harass, intimidate and assault your “girlfriend” (Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants). You pull a Qyntel Woods and engage in some illegal dog-fighting? You’re not only thrown off the team but for a mildly talented player, you’re never seen in the NBA again. But for something like DV this isn’t the case because, if you go by the Woods example for one, abusing dogs is worse than abusing women.
But let’s not forget about Bonds. Barry Bonds is perhaps the most depressing example of how people, the sports world in particular, don’t really care about how a player acts off the field so long as his performance is record-breaking. The volcanic Bonds has been said to have made some extremely racist and sexist comments, physically assaulted his former girlfriend and also stalked and continued to intimidate said girlfriend. After all of this was reported vividly in a best-selling book, the most pressing issue with Bonds? It’s whether the man took steroids and human growth hormones. I’ve heard people argue until red in the face about whether this man deserves to be in the record books, about whether his head has changed shape over the years or if steroids increase your cerebral response time, but absolutely no discussion about the violence. Who cares if he’s lost all integrity as a human being? Did he juice or not, that’s apparantly the big issue here.
In many ways, how the NBA chooses to deal with Bonds’ and Artest’s on and off court actions speak volumes for how the professional sports culture does so as well; that is, it echoes the general worldwide notion of “it’s a private matter, let them deal with it” coupled with “what do you want me/the owners/the fans/the coach to do about it?” (remember, Artest was suspended for the rest of the season for the fight with the Piston’s fans while getting nothing close to that for hitting his wife).
I don’t buy for a second that there’s little to be done about abusive, sexist athletes other than “letting the law take care of it.” Whether you’re the one who signs his check, presents him with the defensive player of the year award, reads his name on a highlight reel or buys his teammate’s jersey at the local pro-shop, as cheesy as this sounds, everybody plays a part in calling out the Artests of, if not the entire world, the professional sports world:
What General Managers and Owners Can Do: Don’t sign or trade for players that you know have been charged with domestic violence. Refuse to deal with players who you know have this problem. The message you send to fans when you do something like this is to say “we’re his second chance. He’s not going to screw this up, believe me.” In reality, the message is “I could care less what he does. If he helps us win then that’s all I care about.” Worried about signing a free agent, a college recruit, a newcomer who may turn to be the next Dmitri Young? Put a clause in the damn contract saying that if he is ever charged with DV, his contract and his paycheck are gone for good. Agents and GMs routinely put into contracts that players are forbidden from doing things like riding motorcycles, participating in dangerous sports activities for fear of physical injury. If you’re that concerned about a player hurting himself and being unable to play for a certain period of time, it only makes sense that if only for the selfish reason of having your talent readily available, you don’t want him to go to, you know, go to jail. If you’ve already got an abusive man on your team then either fire him or demand that he take leave for an indefinite period of time (regardless of any “but we’re right in the middle of a playoff series!” cries) for intensive counseling.
What Coaches and Managers Can Do: Refuse to play players that are under investigation for, being charged with, in the midst of a court proceeding for DV. Who cares about playing time when they get paid anyways, you say? Well, players often have incentives in their contracts that reward good play with cash bonuses. If you are pulled from the lineup for three weeks, you’re not going to reach that 100 RBI mark that season and there goes a large chunk of your non-guaranteed contract. When you don’t do this, when you play a player despite what’s going on in the real world, you are saying to everyone “I don’t care if he hit his wife, we need a strong starter for our series with the Yankees.” If you’re getting flack from the owners, the players for standing up for your beliefs then quit while standing up for your beliefs.
What Fans Can Do: The obvious one here is to boo and heckle the hell out of a player if you’re at the game itself. I’m not a fan of heckling in a sports environment but when someone is abusing another person, well, call them out. However, this of course isn’t probably the most productive thing to do as a fan so the best thing would be to either boycott those games, buying merchandise from the team harboring the abuser while letting the organziation clearly know why you’re choosing not to renew your season tickets or why you’re not buying tickets to give away at your work-place raffle. The message couldn’t be clearer to these franchises: if you condone this behavior by letting this person represent your team, then you aren’t getting my dollars.
What the Commissioner Can Do: Adopt and strictly implement a Code of Conduct for your entire league. David Stern, the NBA commish recently made one that, while vague, focused on the social responsibility of the league to maintain it’s integrity within world communities (think of the “NBA Cares” commercials). One of it’s big selling points was that it boldly promised to work with companies who had this same vision and as such partnered with corporations like Adidas which from what I gather, is supposed to be at least a little bit better than someplace like Nike. Establish from the get-go, especially with incoming players, that if you violate this policy, your contract is immediately terminated and your career is put on indefinite hold. The NBA banned Chris Anderson for repeatedly failing his drug tests so why not do the same to players who repeatedly beat their wives/girlfriends?
What Commissioners, Players and Franchises Can Do Together: For the love of god, be a little more diverse in the kinds of “charity” you involve yourselves in. Building basketball courts for kids is great, buying new computers for kids is awesome, teaching kids how to dribble is fun but i’ll bet you those kids who have abusive men in their lives would much rather have a safe, violence-free home than meeting Vince Carter and learning the pick-and-roll. Any charity is good, don’t get me wrong, but organizations must not shy away from causes like DV, rape, sex-health education and abortion-rights. The Seattle Mariners, to name one particular organization, actually did this in their “I Will Not Hit” ad-campaign from several years back where a few of their players brought awareness to DV (To no surprise, The Seattle Mariners is an organization that anti-sexist activist Jackson Katz lists as an org that he worked with.). Furthermore, work together with some different organizations than the ones you always collaborate with: believe me The United Way, the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America aren’t exactly going to go bankrupt if you become more diverse with your charitable funding this year. Even if you’re hell bent on donating specifically to kids and reading (as the NBA is famous for) do it at the Y-DOUBLE-YOU-C-A and maybe not the YMCA this year. Actively seek out local non-profits and larger organizations that deal with DV and rape awareness/prevention/advocacy and the people will follow. Locally, the Seattle Sonics always dish out food at a certain Seattle Christian-based shelter and, surprise of the century, they have more volunteers there than they know what to do with because people hear about Ray Allen spending time there and word spreads. Do the same about other issues for a change.
What Sports-Journalists Can Do: Report the news. When someone like Artest gets sentenced for DV, let the community know. When someone gets arrested for DV, let the community know and then follow up and then follow up some more. Even if you can only fit in a tiny blurb, let people know that these things aren’t just isolated incidents that magically go away after first report. When you’re writing an article about a player who has repeatedly been arrested for DV, connect some dots and question how this person continues to have a job in this league. Bud Selig can’t fire you for what you write or say in your column or newscast so say it.
What Individual Players Can Do: Almost every professional athlete earning more than the league minimum has some sort of charity in their name that they do “on their own time” usually at where they grew up or in the city which they first started playing in the NBA. Again, don’t do what 99.9% of other professional athletes do and instead donate your money, time and name to something that is seen as a “taboo” topic or something that men don’t normally take action against. Take Mariska Hargitay of Law and Order: SVU fame, for example. How many athletes, celebrities or anybody famous can you name that specifically and openly supports survivors of sexual assault?
The NBA, NFL, MLB are each communities. Together, (along with the NHL, NASCAR, etc.) they are a sports community and it has to be the responsibility of these kinds of communities, along with those within family and friends, those of the state, the city, and the federal government to be vocal and call out domestic violence for the scourge that it is in society and it’s own players lives. What clearer way is there for people to band together and begin to speak out against domestic violence than through the sports teams they root for? If you want to be truly proud of your team, don’t you want to be proud that it doesn’t condone men’s violence against women?
So Ron Artest is going to now enter classes on domestic violence, classes on the effects of DV to kids, do some community service and, whenever the court (or the counselor) says he doesn’t have to partake in those support groups anymore, call it a day. A few years ago I would’ve said that while he should get jail-time, this is the most we can do and sending him to DV support groups/counseling is what he needs. After reading Why Does He Do That?, I’m not so sure. Actually, i’m pretty confident that he’s not going to change or get better in any long-term way because, after reading from someone whose job it is to work with guys like Artest in DV support groups, the men there…most of them don’t get better. In fact, according to Bancroft, many get worse and the wives and girlfriends are told very specifically from the beginning to anticipate this potential increase in violent behavior. What I didn’t know about these types of programs is that while they from the outside look to be aiming to help folks like Artest, the main focus is in helping the abused women in the relationship. Whether that’s connecting them with confidential shelter resources or simply sharing vital information about the abuser that could save a woman’s life, the aid is in immediately minimizing the damage and assisting the woman in whatever stage of the relationship she may be at with the abuser. Whether that’s “making plans to divorce and relocate” or not, the point is that unless jailed, someone like Artest will likely continue his abusive ways with his wife, if not another woman.
After working at a place where we upheld supposed confidentiality Codes of Conduct and with a blind-eye harbored male rapists, DV abusers, drug-addicts, thieves and child-support dodgers, I don’t know what else to suggest than massive, parole-free jail-years. The folks I encountered on the job, minus the alcoholics (though many had combinations of “demons”), weren’t going to get any better in a “transitional program” so they coast on by by receiving slight penalties here and there and depending on “second chances” much like Artest. That is and will never be enough because minimizing abuse, while it certainly is necessary given that many abused women still live with their abusers, doesn’t stop the abuse and if you can’t help someone who is a danger to society, if you have the opportunity..you throw his ass in jail for a long, long time.