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Sports Media Coverage of Domestic Violence Fails Us All

"We're not watching someone explain their wrong, we're watching them perpetrate it."

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National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence

On April 5th, 2016, ESPN television aired an interview with Greg Hardy, an NFL player attempting to redeem his public image following a violent incident with his girlfriend. The spot was familiar, the stage set for Redemptive Interview 101. The interviewer prods the interviewee, gets him to admit wrongdoing and show contrition, then the audience absolves him tacitly and puts the matter to rest. Dozens of celebrities have negotiated it successfully, yesterday's villains becoming today's legends.

Hardy's interview drew scrutiny because he deviated from the script, refusing to admit wrongdoing. Protests filled the air. He didn't say the right things. We could not get resolution. Both Hardy and interviewer Adam Schefter were criticized.

What we don't realize--what few are talking about--is that interviews like this are damaging even when they follow the usual line. The cycle of admission-contrition-absolution may be standard in the world of celebrity media; in the world of Domestic Violence it often sets the stage for abuse. Those who address Domestic Violence with a public voice need to understand that standard practices do not fit this specialized situation. We're hurting people. We must do better.


To the extent the media discusses any topic, we have a responsibility to do so fairly, with insight, and in a manner that does no further harm. We're failing on all three counts with Domestic Violence...not because we're intentionally bad, but because we don't understand the nature of the offense and the pain our inexpert discussion perpetuates.

Domestic violence is not an isolated, physical event conducted in anger. Domestic Violence isn't about a temporary emotion. It's a pattern of actions or tactics used to intentionally control or dominate an intimate partner; it's not confined to physical violence.

Domestic Violence educators talk about an ongoing cycle of power and control. Here's a visual representation:

Cycle of Abuse.png

Note the stages:

1. Tensions increase, victim often tries to calm the perpetrator, "walking on eggshells".

2. The perpetrator acts out in abusive fashion.

3. The perpetrator apologizes, minimizes, excuses, or denies...sometimes directly with the victim, sometimes with others who may suspect that something is wrong.

4. Calm is restored and the relationship seems normal until Stage 1 returns.

Note that Domestic Violence is ongoing in all four stages. Only the second stage is prosecuted in court but Stage 2 is one part of an ever-circling merry-go-round. Stages 3, 4, and 1 aren't a detour away from violence, they lead directly to violence happening again.

Sometimes victims of Domestic Violence will state that the actual physical harm that can accompany Stage 2 isn't the worst part of the ordeal. Bruises heal. The fear of impending harm in Stage 1, intimidation and threats in Stage 2, and the perpetrator making excuses in Stage 3 can be just as damaging long-term.

Not being believed when evidence of abuse goes public can be particularly painful for Domestic Violence survivors. Abusers are often persuasive, solicitous, respected, even revered. Nobody's comfortable thinking Domestic Violence happens in the first place, let alone in their community with the perpetrator being a man they respect and admire: a pastor or congressman or athlete. Disbelieving the possibility, they disbelieve the story of the victim...sometimes implicitly, sometimes overtly.

Often the community surrounding the victim aids the perpetrator in the cycle (and thus in the abuse) by listening to explanations, excuses, and denials. Whether the audience believes the story internally matters little. By giving the perpetrator the floor--listening without really addressing the matter--they've propelled the process rather than diverting it.

Words are one of the main avenues abusers use to isolate their victims. Abuse flourishes when the victim has nobody to depend on or connect to but the perpetrator. They portray victims as liars or mistaken, accuse them of exaggerating or having ulterior motives. They attempt to sever connections between the victim and family, friends, co-workers, neighborhoods, churches...anyone who will listen to them, anyone whom they can convince that nothing's wrong or that the victim is crazy.

It's bad enough to see an abuser drive a wedge between the victim and their immediate community. Television gives an abuser a chance to present their case to an entire nation, pulling the world onto their side in a way the victim has no chance of avoiding or countering.


Let's say this again...abuse goes on in all four stages of the cycle, including those that are predominantly verbal. Domestic Violence is cemented with words as much as fists.

When we watch an interview like ESPN conducted, we're not watching someone explain their wrong, we're watching them perpetrate it.

Helping perpetrators minimize and deflect, we set the stage for the cycle to repeat. In doing so, we become a part of it.

I do not expect sports reporters and television staff to understand all this instinctively. Few people do until they've heard firsthand from people who know. This does not absolve them of responsibility.

As participants in sports media--creators and consumers--we need to agree on basic standards that preserve the dignity and safety of Domestic Violence survivors and everyone drawn into the discussion.

1. This is not the first time Domestic Violence has been an issue in sports. Reporters who discuss or conduct an interview on a subject should at least do cursory research on that subject. Furthermore they should not confine coverage to one subset of participants (in this case athletes and perpetrators) while ignoring experts in the field (victims and educators).

2. When discussing crime or malfeasance, media members should not aid same or become a party to it in any way through their reporting.

3. When discussing harm done to another person, media members should have utmost regard for the safety and sanctity of victims.  This includes not saying or imply that the victim did something to deserve it, or is responsible for the perpetrator's acts.

4. When confronted with the possibility that they have not done the foregoing, reporters and the organizations that employ them should top, listen to the complaint, engage in an exploratory process which includes education on the subject, and critically examine their motives and effects instead of reflexively justifying their actions. This should happen even if they have followed protocol and tradition; current standards aren't equipped to deal with situations we don't fully understand yet.

To all outward appearances, ESPN has done none of these things. To the extent that's true, they not only risked becoming an active participant in the victimization process, they risked making us accessories as well as we watched and discussed their interview.

The potential effects of these decisions transcend a single person or event. Every time we make a mistake, we put another roadblock between victims of Domestic Violence and safety...particularly if their perpetrators are rich, talented, or famous.


ESPN's Michelle Beadle has protested this interview but neither ESPN nor the reporters involved have given any indication that they might have done something objectionable. Not knowing whether they're going to repeat this process is one thing. Not knowing whether they even know to question it is unpalatable.

I do not know what to do about this, but I do know that everything decent in me cries out that this...must...stop. The sports world will never be free of Domestic Violence any more than the rest of the world will. We have to educate ourselves and develop a code of coverage that does not include hurting people who have already suffered and justifying people who have harmed them.

We have to be aware that putting a microphone in front of someone bestows power and privileged access. Our choices about granting same should be guided by ethical concerns as well as expediency and ratings.

We should refuse to listen to radio shows where two males without any specialized knowledge of the subject try to one-up each other with how much they hate abusers or spend two hours trying to figure out if the offense was "real".

Our stomachs should churn every time we hear the subject co-opted, suffering used as a sub-point in a debate that ends up minimizing or exacerbating it.

Consider an article that appeared on the day after the ESPN interview aired. It analyzed how well Hardy did with "damage control". A quote from the piece:

In his ESPN appearance, Hardy needed to be remorseful, direct and contrite. He needed to be seen as taking responsibility. And he needed to avoid muddled and contradictory responses. He didn't do any of that.

Here's the translation: "Hardy needed to cover up, explain, and apologize for his offenses well enough that his public image was redeemed and the rest of us were willing to overlook and forget them." That's exactly how abusers operate. That's what they depend on us doing. Knowingly or not, the author of this article ended up coaching perpetrators on how to get through the cycle of abuse without being detected or stopped by anyone in the community around them.

Nowhere in the article were the words, "Women should not be abused," or, "Perpetrators should be held accountable for their actions and change their ways".

The point here isn't to scourge individual authors but to point out that this is how we talk about Domestic Violence in the sports world. Articles like this aren't unusual, they're the standard. That standard needs to change.

It's time for this to stop...not just for Adam Schefter and ESPN, but for all of us. We should refuse to accept this, refuse to be a party to it, and get enough education on the subject that we can know when we're being dragged into a tragic process and hurting others as we do so. As we continue to harm those who have already suffered and justify the violence done to them, the line between perpetrator and public--and thus the survivor's path out of Domestic Violence to safety--grows that much thinner.


If we wish to turn this around we to learn more about the basics of Domestic Violence. Here are some quality resources to start with: : Is This Abuse? / Power and Control Wheel / Why Do People Stay?

FaithTrust Institute: Domestic Violence FAQ's Domestic Violence and Abuse

National Resource Center on Domestic Violence: Power and Control Wheel

If you are experiencing Domestic Violence, here's a number where you can turn for a listening ear:

1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 Safety Tips for Surviving Domestic Violence

--Dave / @DaveDeckard@Blazersedge

Read about my first book here and order it here.