Shelly Hettleman: You Shouldn’t Have to See it to Believe it

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By: Shelly Hettleman 

The old adage, “you have to see it to believe it” has taken on a whole new meaning these past few days with the release of the videotape showing Ray Rice knocking unconscious his then-fiancee Janay Palmer. It is tragic that it took a videotape to convince the NFL and the Ravens (and the community at large) that what Rice did was really and truly violent. While much has been written about this incident, I believe the main crux of the issue has been overlooked:  the failure of our community to take domestic violence seriously.

How is it that the legal system did not adequately respond to this act of brutality? After all, the prosecutor saw the videotape from the outset. In another recent domestic violence case, an Alabama federal judge – with lifetime tenure on the bench -- who brutally beat his wife just accepted a plea deal that may wipe his record clean upon completion of an abuser’s program. His attorney described the judge’s embarrassment that this “family matter” became a public spectacle. 

We all need to realize that abuse is NOT just a family matter. CNN Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin’s assessment is right, “It's not up to victims to decide whether their husbands should be prosecuted. Abusers damage the community, not just the women they assault. Whether the Rices and Fullers stay married is their business; but whether Ray Rice and Judge Mark Fuller committed crimes should be a question for prosecutors, and ultimately, juries to decide.” Too often the legal system does not take acts of violence seriously.

I ran a domestic violence program in Baltimore for 5 years and met many women who came to us for fear that no one would believe them. When they did confide in someone, it was not unusual to be asked what they did to provoke the attack. I recall hearing from a woman whose husband forcibly held her head in a toilet while he flushed it repeatedly. She felt that she was trapped in the relationship because he was a member of a very prominent family. Who would believe her, when her husband was an upstanding member of the community? She “only” had her experience of having lived through the abuse – not a videotape.

What does having to see a videotape to believe an act of abuse say about our notions of who is an abuser? Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said, “We kind of heard what we wanted to hear and imagined what we wanted to imagine because we loved Ray.” It’s difficult to believe that people we know and love can do horrific things. Interestingly, Ozzie Newsome said that Ray Rice accurately described the incident to him right after it happened.

Abusers come in all shapes and sizes – they are white, black, brown, rich and poor, they are working class and are among the one percent. They don’t act like monsters to everyone. They don’t even act like monsters all the time to the women they abuse. Abusers can be kind, caring, philanthropic, learned and charming.

Minimization of domestic violence sends the wrong message to women who are abused. Most abused women don’t have videotapes of the incident. It is human nature to want to discount the uncomfortable – especially if it’s about someone we think we know well. Denial is a powerful force we must overcome as individuals and in our collective psyche.

While domestic violence is today’s front page news story because the abusers are professional athletes, public institutions, like sports franchises (and the NBA, NHL, MLB, and NFL) have a moral and communal responsibility to hold their players accountable (unfortunately, there are many athletes who face abuse current abuse charges). Sport is more than big business – teams provide communities with identities and children with role models. There need to be serious no tolerance policies adopted by the leagues.

And finally, we all must take responsibility for holding powerful institutions accountable for how they react to domestic violence within their organizations -- whether sports franchises or the bench, the business world or the world of government. We must make certain the Ravens honor their commitment to work with the House of Ruth and train their players about domestic violence. We must make certain the NFL treats this issue with the seriousness it deserves. It shouldn’t take a videotape to point our moral compass in the right direction.

Shelly Hettleman is a Democratic Nominee for the House of Delegates, District 11 and was the Director of CHANA, Counseling, Helpline & Aid Network for Abused Women from 1995-2000.

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