Black Male Athletes and Domestic Violence


As the calendar turns to August and mini-camps turn to the NFL Preseason schedule, America’s love affair with the controlled chaos of football season is reaching a fever pitch. After multiple recent publicized incidents of domestic assault by athletes of color – particularly football players – F.O.R. writers J-Mal, Kyle, and Malik attempt to answer some difficult questions about race, relationships, culture, and masculinity.

J-Mal: Ok fellas, it’s time to tackle a question that I have been pondering for the past few days.  I was watching First Take with everyone’s favorite TV personality Screamin Stephen A. Smith and he made some comments that stuck with me. In his discussion about the recent incidents of current Florida State University running back Dalvin Cook and former FSU quarterback De’Andre Johnson.

He quotes a stat from the USA TODAY (can’t seem to find that article, but you know, who needs real proof anymore) that since the year 2000, of the reported 96 NFL players arrested for domestic violence, 94 of them are Black men.

This leads me to the question of the day.  Screamin Stephen A. attempted to highlight that white athletes and coaches have also been involved in domestic violence incidents, and that he won’t accept that this is a Black thing.  But let’s really be honest, is it?  Are we (Black men) more prone, for whatever reason, to engage in domestic assault? I don’t know how I’m feeling yet. Because after Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, Ray McDonald (twice!), Dalvin Cook, De’Andre Johnson, Frank Clark, Tyreek Hill, and countless other situations in 2014-2015 alone–let that sink in, 2014-2015 alone–this really does feel like a Black male, or at the very least a Black male athlete, epidemic.


Kyle: Okay, as with most times, when the question turns into one of propensity – “are we more prone, for whatever reason, to engage in domestic assault?” – I’ve got to say the nay no, my brotha. I’m sure I could quote some thinkpiece or a report that was covered in Newsweek (so you know it has to be true), but there is no way that Black men are attacking women at a greater rate than our white counterparts. Can’t believe it.

I do believe that it is an athlete epidemic, however, born somewhere between the competitive nature and excess testosterone it takes to be elite. Do yourself a favor and Google “white athletes domestic violence”. In fact, here, let me Google that for you. You’ll see the articles and you’ll see some names popping up: Kurt Busch (NASCAR), War Machine (MMA), Semyon Varlamov (NHL), Sean Avery (NHL), Tito Ortiz (MMA), Francisco Rodriguez (MLB). Granted, I will say that 2014 was a banner year in terms of off-field incidents for Black athletes, but this is not only our problem.

Is it exacerbated by the fact that the NFL is about 2/3rds Black? Absolutely. But, when quoted in this piece for Vice Sports, Ben Carrington, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas who specializes in sports and race, saliently stated that often “race is the trigger for society to express their moral outrage about another issue.” (In this case, interpersonal and domestic violence.) In fact, he says, when a crime is perpetrated by black people, that “helps to make us more angry because of what [the alleged perpetrators] look like.” Powerful, powerful stuff.

Malik: J-Mal. First Stephen A. was asking is this a Black problem more than a White one. And for that I gotta agree with Kyle and Stephen a gets a “BRUH…really?”

Are Black people getting arrested/questioned for domestic violence more? Of course. But Black men are also getting pulled over, questioned and followed in grocery stores, asked if they stole something from the office by their coworkers, etc. more as well. It is NOT because we as Black men (athletes or not) do it more but because of the perception of black men that Stephen A is so against in that clip.  So if he can recognize there is a perception problem why can’t he recognize that there are probably cases of domestic violence amongst White athletes that are not taken as far as the ones with black athletes.

Now do black football players seem to have a problem with being recorded doing stupid irresponsible, violent things? YES. We can all agree that they need to do better because EVERYONE has camera phones and TMZ takes videos from anyone.

So to me the real question is two-fold: 1) is there more domestic violence amongst athletes (professional or college) than amongst the non-athletes? 2) If that is the case what is the difference among athletes that cause the spike in domestic violence?

J-Mal: Ok fellas, you both are disagreeing with me.  And while that’s cool, the points you raise make me put on my thinking cap.

Maybe my original question of whether Black men in general, were more prone to domestic/interpersonal violence was too much of a generalization. And Kyle and Malik, you’re both right that such an over-generalized conclusion is a dangerous one to make because we can all be sure that there are White domestic violence crimes that aren’t penalized or recorded that in turn would skew the numbers.

But since we are Flournoy Over Riley, the hub for race and sports commentary, we have to answer the question about Black men in sports. Kyle you said you think that domestic violence is an epidemic amongst Black football players, while Malik seems to diminish the severity to “being recorded doing stupid irresponsible, violent things.” Call me a pessimist, but I think this is a REAL problem for Black male athletes, in particular football players.

There are no readily available stats to make the comparison of domestic violence incidents between Black and White athletes. So I’m not even going to make that jump. I believe that too often in our community, we mitigate the actual impact of a situation by comparing it to White America. Some White athletes perpetuating domestic assault across a myriad of sports does not make the fact that (if true) 94 out of 96 domestic violence incidents in the NFL have been perpetuated by Black men. This figure does not include college players either. Now I realize that football in America is as high-profile as it gets in the sports world, so someone like NASCAR driver Kurt Busch won’t be as in the limelight as say, Greg Hardy. Buy really guys, didn’t it feel like every month since the Ray Rice incident, there was another Black player getting in trouble?

For me this is saddening and disheartening, and it shows a proclivity for a problem within the Black male athlete community that needs to be addressed. I’m not trying to sound as ignorant as this guy, I just want us to address our issues together and directly.

Is sports culture to blame for our Black male football players consistently engaging in these incidents, or are there aspects of Black American culture that are factors as well?

Malik: Just to clarify my “being recorded doing stupid irresponsible, violent things.” comment was 52.5% joke. My real point was that I think it is a matter of Black men being in situations where they get caught in a way that cannot be swept under the rug (ie: video footage ) more than a specific problem for Black athletes compared to athletes of another race.

J-mal I think the fact that when people talk about Black men and violence in sports (especially football) my question gets overlooked, and the answer to that question puts yours in perspective. It’s all about proportion. If there are significantly more Black players in the NFL than White players then of course there will be more Black men arrested for domestic violence. And due to the perception of Black men (and Black athletes specifically) I’m sure that also inflates the number of Black men actually arrested instead of having it swept under the rug.

Is the proportion statistically significant compared to 94/96 proportion, probably not. But I feel with a bit more statistical analysis over a longer period of time we would find a stronger correlation between players getting arrested for domestic violence and some other attribute (position, role on team, specific circumstances of that player’s season, or something that has absolutely nothing to do with race). But the race thing is the easy thing to jump on which is my problem with TV talking heads like Stephen A.

I personally just hate when things get turned into a race problem (or a Black people problem ) rather than an American culture problem just because Black men get arrested for said thing more (ie: the drug problem in America). Black men get arrested for these things more because Black men get arrested more in general.

Kyle: “Hold up, wait a minute/y’all thought I was finished?” – Meek Mill (R.I.P.)

J-Mal has a point: the lack of readily available quantitative data makes this whole topic a very hard one to debate on the Black vs. White, 1-to-1 comparison tip. But I think that the real questions that arise out of this touch on the greater-than-the-evidence sociological factors that lead to violent behavior. Being a “product of your environment” is not just a hokey trope; it’s an empirical fact, backed by a myriad of research moving in endless directions. So it’s more than a football problem. It’s more than a Black men in football problem. To Malik’s point, I think there is a correlation between environmental and socio-historic factors in these men’s lives that make them more likely to engage in DV/IPV. Your stats from Feminista Jones’ piece are steeped in the reality that Black people are differently affected by experiences that all racial and ethnic groups face, and that affected-ness is informed by deep wounds growing out of the particular history of Black peoples in America.

I digress. In truth, merely existing in a hypermasculine (Playmakers), hypersexualized (Ballers) culture as a pro athlete magnifies these issues and makes whatever propensity exist that much worse.

In terms of addressing the defensibility of Black athletes accused of heinous criminal activity, just look at jersey sales. I don’t even need to give you numbers. Think about the fanaticism that comes with loving sports. In 2010, when LeBron rendered “The Decision,” fans could be seen burning in effigy thousands of dollars in Cavs merchandise bearing James’ name and likeness. Almost no one, especially in Cleveland, came to stand behind him. At the same time, in 2014 when Ray Rice was being tried in the Court of Public Opinion for his caught-on-tape IPV episode with his fiance, a very different phenomenon played out and as a resident of Baltimore I got to witness it first-hand. While hundreds of Ravens fans were outraged by what they saw and the message it portrayed, and rightly so, every nightly sports report would show some number of Ravens fans – particularly women, White women more than any other – standing in defense of Rice and the team. That is the depth of fandom.

If we want to make this Black and White, I think two levels exist. On one, DV/IPV among athletes is an issue that proportionately affects those who play the game. On the other, both Black and White athletes can be and are products of their environment (pre-football life, and concurrent with football life), and those environments affect their individual propensity to commit these acts of intra-personal violence. I fall back on Professor Carrington’s quote: “Race is the trigger for society to express their moral outrage about another issue.” So, thanks 2014-2015. You have officially been crowned the Year of the Big Black Brute.

J-Mal: So if 2014-2015 is the year of the “Big Black Brute” hopefully we can help make 2016 the year of reckoning and progress. I want Black men, and Black athletes to understand and be fully aware that DV/IPV is a problem in our community, one of which we can be complete control. Addressing the intricate details of environment, culture, understanding of intimate relationships, gender roles, and masculinity will take time, but I believe it begins with awareness and continues with the acknowledgement of the issue. It is time for Black male athletes to admit that this is more of an epidemic than an isolated occurrence, and it will also take the NFL and college football to create more programs and supports to fully tackle (no pun intended) this issue. It can’t just rest with punitive consequences.

While I know and fully understand that DV/IPV isn’t solely a Black person, or Black athlete problem, I know it is a problem–one that has existed for way too long. From Mike Tyson to Jason Kidd to Jovan Belcher to Ray Rice we have seen this story all too often, and now, after all that has transpired, is a great time to write a new one.