NFL player Ray Rice signs autographs (2009).
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explainer / family

Private Matter or Public Crisis? Defining and Responding to Domestic Violence

It is only recently that domestic abuse was identified as a serious, public social problem.
On February 15, 2014, NFL star Ray Rice and Janay Palmer, who were then engaged, were both arrested on assault charges in Atlantic City after getting into what Rice’s attorney then described as a “minor physical altercation” in an elevator.

A few days later, TMZ released a video showing Rice dragging an unconscious Palmer out of the hotel elevator. Rice was indicted on third degree aggravated assault charges, to which he pled not guilty. He was accepted into a pretrial intervention program, which is rarely used in domestic assault cases, for first-time offenders that would clear him of all charges in six months.

In late July 2014, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell also handed Rice a two game suspension. Many felt that the punishment was too light, and it incited criticism of the NFL’s personal conduct policy on domestic violence. In response, the NFL revised its policy and instituted a six game suspension for first time offenders.

Controversy around the incident, however, erupted again in early September 2014, when TMZ released another video, this one of the fight that occurred in the elevator. It showed Rice punching Palmer and knocking her to the ground.

Goodell, having already faced criticism for punishing Rice too lightly, tried to argue that he had never seen that particular footage and that Rice had misrepresented the incident to him. He suspended Rice indefinitely. When Rice appealed his suspension this past November, however, a judge ruled that Rice had not lied or misled the NFL about what happened in the elevator. His suspension was lifted.

The fact that there was public outrage not only over Ray Rice’s transgressions, but also the NFL’s handling of those transgressions, reflects important changes in public and legal reactions regarding violence towards women.

These public acts confirm that the extensive work that feminist activists and battered women themselves did in the 1970s has been, in some measure, successful in changing policies and attitudes about domestic violence.

These activists made domestic violence visible, defined it as a significant social issue, and demanded that those in positions of power impose consequences on abusers.
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