Football’s Culture of Violence; Women As Collateral Damage

An open letter to Stephen A Smith

Dear Stephen A.,

I have listened to your ESPN “First Take” discussion regarding Ray Rice. During that conversation, you said a variation of the same thing four times: that women should be careful to avoid provoking violence against them.

I believe you when you say that you have women in your life that you love and protect. I believe that you were not prepared for the response to your uninformed statements. I feel the need to respond to your statements publicly because I advocate for victims of domestic violence and I can see from your comments that you do not understand the dynamics involved when violence is perpetrated against women by their intimate partners.

I understand that you believe your paycheck comes from your persona of being and interesting and controversial guy. But you crossed the line here.

Your comments will fuel the fires of justification that abusive men use as excuses for violent aggression toward their intimate partners. I cannot conscientiously remain silent on the issue.

As your communication will empower abusers, this letter is intended to empower their victims. For every man who uses your statements to justify his behavior, I hope that this letter reaches a dozen women and helps them understand where the fault, responsibility and blame lies for violence within intimate relationships.

Let me begin by quoting you directly. For clarity, this discussion must empower victims; words of abusers are taken as “truth” by their victims because abusive words are used as tools of power and control. When those words are “backed up” by physical assault, confusion replaces clarity. So, for clarity, you said:

1) “We keep talking about the guys . . . . but . . . . let’s make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions.”

2) “Let’s try to make sure that we can do our part in making sure that that  [violence] doesn’t happen.”

3) “Now you got some dudes that are just horrible and they are going to do it

anyway . . . . but we also got to make sure that you can do your part to do whatever you can do to try to make sure it doesn’t happen.”

4) “But we also have to make sure that we learn as much as we can about elements of provocation . . . . you got to make sure that you address it because what we got to do is do what we can to try to prevent the situation from happening in any way and I don’t think that’s broached enough.”

In case you or anyone reading this letter question the validity of these quotes, I offer this.

Appropriately, Michelle Beadle pointed out your error but I believe her response didn’t clarify the issue for you because you responded by re-stating your problematic position two more times:

1) “But what about addressing women on how they can help prevent the obvious wrong being done upon them?”

2) “Preventative measures always need to be addressed.”

Are you still confused about why your uninformed statements brought responses that correctly assess that you are placing responsibility where it doesn’t belong?

In spite of your longer tweeted response that was published after the first tweets were deleted, I believe you may still be confused. You longer response looked like a response made with the help of the “worldwide leader” that you “do NOT believe a woman provokes the horrible abuses that are sadly such a major problem in our society.” Good for P.R. but not good for the effects of your statements on the lives of victims whose violent partners will use your SIX statements as your actual beliefs about women’s part in being abused while recognizing that you had to make this last statement to keep your ESPN paychecks coming.

Unfortunately for you, I believe you walked into a firestorm that really isn’t about you. Your statements simply amplify the much-needed discourse about violence against women and what is really going on that keeps the violence going.

The violence of the football culture and the many NFL players who have perpetrated violence against their intimate partners provide all of the evidence for where the real problems and “preventative measures” can be found – but you have to know where to look and be willing to go there.

Before I go on, it is important to point out that according to a study reported in Social Issues in Sport, up to 21.4% of NFL players had records of more than minor crimes. The NFL Arrests Database lists the crimes on record since 2000. You may argue that this means that almost 80% of players don’t have violent backgrounds. But if we are talking about 1000 NFL players, that means that 214 women are potential victims – assuming that a violent NFL player only victimizes one woman. I believe you would agree with me that if the number is 214, it is 214 too many.

Or do you? I know enough about your career in sports to know that for you to refer to your “boys” means that you hear their side of the story and understand “provocation” from an abuser’s point of view. I’m confident that your concern about them comes from your relationship with men you know to be (as Rice has been described) “smiling, laughing jokester[s]” of whom you have been fond. And when they have talked about their troubles in relationships, they come off as sincere, confused and hurt. Naturally, a friend would champion the cause of looking at both sides when one of his “boys” complains that he has been hurt by the woman he hit. But let’s look a little deeper, shall we?

Here is the truth. Violence always occurs with a common formula:

– A young child (in this case, male) is traumatized or exposed to violence

–  That child is not taught healthy ways to deal with loss, trauma or violence

– That child learns that rather than feeling vulnerable, he can overcome fears, injustice and pain by converting his pain into anger

– The child’s emotional maturity gets stunted and the pain festers into explosive outbursts. During childhood, this is usually considered a tantrum.

– Anything that reminds the child of the pain results in a tantrum.

– When a 218 pound man with the emotional maturity of a child is reminded of pain, his tantrum is dangerous.

Since the current firestorm surrounds your boy Ray Rice, let’s apply his specifics to this formula.

– His father was killed by gunfire intended for someone else when Ray was 1 year old

– Ray’s father-figure cousin (Shaun; who moved in after the cousin’s mother died of brain cancer) was killed in a car accident when Ray was 11.

– After Shaun died, Ray didn’t have much time for grief because his mother informed him that he was the “man of the house.” She is quoted as saying: “Ray stepped into some big shoes at a very early age. He was a man before he was a boy.”

After losing his biological father and his surrogate father, Ray didn’t have time to make sense of his losses. And his mother placed a responsibility on a child’s shoulders that would create stress of a magnitude that is far too great for a child of that age to manage without repercussions.

He loves his mother and continues to be close to her. But the family lived on public assistance and Ray took on the responsibility for bringing money home to help his mother from as early as age 8. By the 11th grade, he is quoted as saying he was going to make it to the NFL so that his mother wouldn’t have to work.

Ray’s need for the basic essentials of life became his responsibility when his cousin died. Proof is the continued concern that his mother doesn’t have to work so hard. But how?

Ray’s solution was to become a NFL player. He saw that as the solution to poverty. His father, whom he had learned was a “respectable man” and his cousin who had always encouraged him to reach for his dreams was replaced by another father figure: his football coach.

Now let’s add football to the formula.

Football is an aggressive sport characterized by the mentality that the more aggressive a player is, the more successful he will be. Football coaches develop aggression in their players by yelling at them, cursing at them, demanding obedience to their commands and demanding perfection. Successful football players (if the NFL is any indication) can be heard cursing, growling and yelling as if they are running off to a war and the war cry fuels the aggressive energy they need to win at all costs.

The football field is a war zone where men are encouraged by the NFL machine to risk their bodies and well-being in exchange for the fame, notoriety and wealth.

In Ray’s case, NFL held the promise of never seeing his mother impoverished again.  And his high school football coach, whether he realized it or not, encouraged a traumatized, grieving young man to turn the energy of his losses into aggression.

To fight when he feels emotional pain. The side effect of fighting aggressively in response to emotional pain is that the release of the physical aggression leads to the release of the built-up painful emotions that the person using aggression would rather not experience.

The misdirection of unresolved losses onto the football field leads to the misinterpretation that painful emotions should be responded to with a similar dynamic of power and control.

When we apply this information to intimate relationships and in keeping with the war metaphor, let’s just say that Ray Rice’s unresolved childhood trauma results in his being a 37 year old, 218 pound man who has what I would call landmines inside him related to loss of his father and cousin and fears for his mother’s well-being.

Stephen A., I think you would agree that all of us have things to overcome that started in childhood. And I think you would also agree that when we get into close relationships with other people, those leftovers can cause us to behave badly. What you may or may not realize is that it is the job of every grown-up to do the emotional work of clearing the internal “landmines” so that innocent people will not suffer the consequences of our childhood pain.

I don’t know what happened between Ray Rice and his then fiance/now wife before that 218 man threw a tantrum that led to knocking her out cold and dragging her, face-down out of the elevator and shaking her limp body to get her to come to. I don’t know why he didn’t seem to show any concern for her as she began to regain consciousness.

But I can surely imagine that inside the locker room, if the two of you talked about it, he said something about the landmine that she tripped over without even knowing it. And if she knew there was a landmine there, was it her responsibility or his to make sure she remained conscious instead of knocked-out because of what she said or did?

Fortunately for us, we don’t have to rely on your honesty or sense of honor to get at the truth. The writing is on the wall. Specifically, the wall at

Greg Hardy makes no excuses about the fact that his answer to extreme poverty growing up was fighting and winning at any cost. “The Kraken” as he is called is described by Robert Klemko as “playing the part of a fire-breathing sociopath as irreverent as he is unpredictable, and composed of equal parts intelligence, indifference and violence.” In the article (which illustrates my point and can be found here), Hardy says: “I’m balling 100 percent of the time, but I’m taking more focus into the game when I’m not the Kraken. Once you piss me off, I forget everything. Everything after that is the monster. I’m going to take you out. When you cross that line, I’m gonna take it to a place you’ve never seen before.”

This interview was conducted at the end of February of this year.

By May, Hardy’s girlfriend, Nicole Holder, could attest to the fact that Greg Hardy was speaking truthfully about his response when he believes he is crossed. In court documents, she testified that after a “short-lived” relationship with rapper/entertainer Nelly during a period of break-up between Hardy and Holder, Hardy came home from an evening of partying with his boys and assaulted her.

  1. reports:

“The victim advised: the defendant has been very upset about this since March and often becomes suddenly very angry,” the documents read.

Two weeks ago, Hardy was convicted of assault against Holder.

Her testimony:

Holder said Hardy grew agitated at her and, “to top everything off, a Nelly song came on.”

After going to the condo, Hardy began hurling insults at her, calling her a whore and a slut, Holder testified, then backhanded her into a wall. She said he slammed her onto a sofa strewn with firearms, and then choked her.

When he loosened his grip, Holder said, she struck him in the temple with her shoe. Sammy Curtis, a friend of Hardy’s, came in and tackled her, she said.

“He looked me in my eyes and he told me he was going to kill me,” said Holder, 24, an EpiCentre nightclub waitress who said she used to live with Hardy.

“I was so scared I wanted to die. When he loosened his grip slightly, I said ,’Just do it. Kill me.”

What would you and your boys say about Holder’s ability to unravel the jealousy in The Kraken’s head when he thinks he is looking like a loser. He said this about himself in the article I already referenced: “I get really, really upset when I don’t win. I’ve got a problem with being a loser.” So, was it Holder’s responsibility to convince him that her relationship with Nelly didn’t have anything to do with Holder being a loser? Was it her responsibility to prevent a Nelly song from coming through the speakers?

Let me answer for you: each man who has experienced trauma, loss and poverty has the responsibility to deal with is unresolved emotions without harming anyone else. The NFL should be held responsible for profiting on the misfortunes of little boys in grown bodies who have learned to scream and snarl and fight to get their needs met. War may work on the football field, but it doesn’t translate well to life or relationships. Unfortunately, 21.4% of the NFL players don’t understand that. NFL is a war machine that amplifies the landmines of unresolved loss and fear of more loss into collateral damage: women victimized by men who can’t see the difference between war on the football field and war against any feelings of fear, vulnerability or being wrong.

So Stephen A., I hope this letter has helped you see that encouraging any woman to “make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions” is like telling all of the children in the rice fields of Vietnam all the way to all of the children in the deserts of Gaza that they are responsible for stopping the war.

Shame on you, Stephen A! You know better if what you said about us misunderstanding your statements is true! You know that the conversations about “preventative measures” should begin with the NFL and with your “boys.”

But wait . . . I forgot for a minute. They’re your boys.

© Tamara Bess, LMFT 2014 All Rights Reserved. Any use of this article without Tamara’s express written permission is prohibited.


6 thoughts on “Football’s Culture of Violence; Women As Collateral Damage

  1. Stephen Smith perpetuated the concept of blaming the victim. It doesn’t matter if the victim is a child, an adult, a woman, or a man – a victim is NEVER responsible for the violence enacted against him or her. It doesn’t matter what they may have been discussing or arguing about. It doesn’t matter if she spit in his face. It is NOT EVER OK to knock your fiance/wife unconscious over a disagreement! Stephen Smith, by repeatedly making comments along the line of “let’s make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions,” you are also victimizing this woman – and all victims of domestic violence. Shame on you!

    I was listening to the Tom Joyner Morning Show earlier today when they were discussing this incident. There were female listeners sending in texts and emails saying “we don’t know what SHE did to provoke him.” I couldn’t believe my ears! This is surely the darkest era of women’s history – a time when women do not act to help other women, but rather perpetuate the victimization of other women by not standing up for them.

    • I 100% agree with you. The direction that this conversation is taking and the fact that women are trying to figure out what she did to provoke when provocation is not even an appropriate part of the dynamic in relationship to victims is evidence that we, as a culture, are widely ignorant about what the causes of domestic violence are. In fact, many victims in actively violent relationships believe the lie that they caused the violence precisely because their abusers said so.

      By jumping into this discourse with correct information, we have the opportunity to make a corrective impact on the understanding of domestic violence. We have the opportunity to support victims and diminish the wrong doing that gets perpetuated by asking about “elements of provocation” as Stephen A. Smith put it.

      Please, help spread the correct information provided in this open letter by sharing it as much as you can.

      We have got to get the correct information into the discussion. There will be some who will not want to hear the truth. But the more this letter circulates, the more potential victims will understand that they have no responssbility for or power over abuser behaviors.

      Thank you so much for your comments and continued support.

  2. You’ve asked me to read your article, and I do respect much of what you have to say here…but I’m a bit concerned that you may be guilty of generalizing male stereotypes, almost to the same degree that Stephen A. Smith did when he suggested women need to avoid provoking attacks. It seems that you are suggesting that the NFL, a boys’ league, is fostering an environment that breeds women-beaters. If 21.4 percent have been convicted of major crimes, then we cannot assume that all of these crimes are cases of domestic abuse (especially since marijuana possession is still considered a major crime in many states). Also, that means that 78.6 percent of the league should not automatically be lumped into a category of males who tend towards violence; just because two case studies (Ray Rice and Greg Hardy) have committed violence does not justify the assumption that the majority of males who play in the NFL are more likely to commit violence on women. Walter Payton, my favorite football player, was the most gentle, lovable man, and he played the game with a revered fierceness. I’m simpatico with your mission to identify characteristics of male-specific violence, yet I’m weary of the idea that all males might be incapable of controlling themselves because they engage in or enjoy the game of football. It seems to be just as hasty a generalization as “women shouldn’t provoke their male attackers.” At any rate, I appreciate your advocacy, and I hope you have seen Stephen A. Smith’s apology…it might not be enough on his part, but it is something. What startles me is that more people have lambasted Stephen A. Smith for his words, while NFL executive Adolpho Birch was downright stubbornly ignorant of the repercussions of domestic violence while justifying the two-game suspension of Ray Rice.

    • It is disappointing that although I was careful to point out that almost 80% of NFL players do not have criminal records, yet you suggest that I generalizing male stereotypes. That isn’t true. My article points out the dynamic of violence that is common in relationships characterized by violence.

      Highlighting the boy’s league was specific to discussions among men who tend toward abuse and would blame women for “elements of provocation.” Also, I didn’t say that all of those that had criminal records were violent crimes. Neither did I point out the fact that domestic violence is underreported. It wasn’t my intent to argue about prevalence, but to outline and explain the dynamics. I addressed percentages in the article because I knew that if I didn’t, people would say that I was generalizing. I see that it didn’t matter – either way, people will interpret my words as they wish.

      There are plenty of professional athletes who are non-violent off of the field. Plenty. This piece was written to identify and highlight the dynamics of abuse and how those dynamics are perpetuated related to the violent men.

      It was also written to reach victims who might believe they could cause or prevent violence from a male partner. Using Rice and Hardy were intended to provide specific examples that show that “elements of provocation” had nothing to do with women being assaulted by violent men.

      I in no way stated that males are incapable of controlling themselves because they engage in or enjoy the game of football. Far from it. Most of them can tell the difference between the game and life-and-death warfare.

      Unfortunately, not all of them can. Those who can’t are the focus of my article.

      Thank you for your response.

      • This is fair, and I think I can see how your intent was not malicious in attempting to paint all men who play football as violent domestic abusers. I can see where you would be disappointed that your words could be misconstrued in such a way…This might be the same situation in which Stephen A. Smith finds himself because he was not as clear with his rhetoric. You state you “in no way stated that males are incapable of controlling themselves because they engage in or enjoy the game of football.” After re-reading your article, however, I can still see where it is implied, if not, explicitly stated. I can see where you qualify yourself, but the main thesis still supports the allusion that football’s violent tendencies, played by an all male-cast, contribute to a personality of violence that is more capable of domestic violence…and this might be true! However, it’s easy to read your rhetoric and stretch it to the point where your reader might interpret it unfairly. I am simply suggesting this might also be the case with analysis of Stephen A. Smith’s rhetoric and character. I do indeed thank you for directing me to your article, as I think this is an important issue that needs intense analysis. I do not wish to offend, and I thank you for this correspondence.

  3. Pingback: Apology – 2btru2you

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