Communication Currents

Domestic Violence and Black Athletes in the News

February 1, 2009
Critical and Cultural Studies, Sports Communication

Violence against women is all too common in the U.S. and around the world. The issue of domestic violence found traction in the mainstream news media in the mid-1990s with the high profile murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, the sensationalized case of Lorena Bobbitt, and Congress's passage of the Violence Against Women Act. Increased news coverage of domestic violence can heighten public awareness of domestic abuse as a social problem. However, print media reports about domestic violence published between 1990 and 2005 focused largely on black male sports figures charged with abuse. Ultimately, the social meaning produced through these news stories tells us quite a bit about our public attitudes regarding both race and sex.  

Newspaper and magazine articles reporting on domestic violence focus frequently on black sports figures as abusive men. These reports follow a familiar pattern of depicting black men, especially black athletes, as animalistic and more aggressive. Alternately, stories about abusive white athletes are, on the whole, lacking in the mainstream press. Though rates of domestic violence are roughly equal between races, seldom are reports of white abusive athletes distributed in the mainstream print media. As such, the media often ignores the wider problem of domestic violence, accounting for it as an anomaly of masculinity-under-pressure working in conjunction with predictable black rage. 

Yes, we should hold all abusive men accountable for their actions, but we also should ask: Why are black male athletes depicted as the most likely culprit of domestic abuse? When black athletes are cast repeatedly in the media as naturally more aggressive, we circulate knowledge about domestic violence that scapegoats black men as the easy answer to a complex social issue. In mainstream American culture, we are deeply invested in rigid gender divides that expect men to be masculine and women to be feminine, and these divisions tend to privilege men at the expense of women. We are similarly invested in stark racial distinctions. Rather than questioning our cultural investments in such divisions, analysis of the print news stories between 1990 and 2005 revealed that the stories demonized black men and excused domestic abuse in ways that are especially dangerous.  

These tensions were particularly striking, for example, in the news coverage of Warren Moon. Moon was NFL's Man of the Year in 1989 and was arrested in 1995 for assaulting his wife, Felicia. Articles discussing Moon's violence displayed pictures of him seated next to his diminutive wife and crying children. Moon's lawyer and agent, Leigh Steinberg, challenged the press by questioning indignantly what value was protected by arresting Moon. Highlighting his stature as a role model for the black community, he stood in a long line of news accounts of black athletes cast as likely abuser and fallen hero. 

Other news accounts of abusive sports stars characterize domestic violence as pitfalls and lapses in judgment. Framed this way, these accounts reinforce the notion that, for athletes, domestic abuse is just an expected byproduct of aggressive play and one of many problems they might naturally encounter. Though framed as unacceptable, news stories like these suggest that athletes should not be judged too harshly. Such characterizations simultaneously support the notion that regular men do not work in such high-stress, masculine environments and do not carry aggressive attitudes and actions home from their jobs.  

The legitimacy of accounts of black athletes being naturally more aggressive is further supported by cultural expectations that black men are more likely to exhibit uncontrollable rage. Black athleticism is one of the few domains where African Americans are culturally represented as superior to whites. These expectations simultaneously reinforce cultural racism by supporting the idea that blacks are naturally superior physically and whites superior mentally. Coupled with celebrations of sporting violence on the field, we are left with the conclusion that black men are the most likely to respond to women with physical violence.  

A view of the black body out of control and filled with rage is a familiar fantasy in U.S. public culture. In many of these articles, the term rageRage was frequently the word that encapsulated not only the actions of abusive men, but their identities as humans. Such characterizations are even more common when the couple in question is interracial. Articles that contrast, for example, O.J.'s blackness with Nicole's whiteness reinforce deeply rooted racial divisions. When articles emphasize the rage of abusive black men, it is framed almost solely as a byproduct of their hypermasculine blackness. It is not, conversely, framed as part of a larger system of oppression against women.becomes synonymous with black male bodies.  

We might be encouraged that stories about abusive men are making the headlines at all. Certainly, it is progress. However, when articles suggest the real problem of this violence is that it destroys the careers of otherwise successful black men, we must question the stakes involved. By portraying abusive athletes as anomalies, as different from average men, we simultaneously support the social structures that privilege masculinity in everyday life. By normalizing and perpetuating images of black male aggressors, we smooth away broader connections between domestic violence and male privilege. Instead of understanding domestic violence as a problem that relies on our cultural investments in gender and racial divides, we are left with the failures of black male scapegoats as the explanation for widespread abuse.  

I do not mean, here, to scapegoat the mass media as the chief perpetuator of racist characterizations of domestic violence. Rather, I am suggesting that we ought to view these images as specific aspects of a larger racist and classist structure that serves to enable abusive men and undermine women's abilities to escape violence. This structure, which privileges white men in particular, has enormous stakes in maintaining current hierarchies of race, class, and gender. In the end, we must insist upon greater efforts to question dominant depictions of abusers as they function to perpetuate domestic violence as natural, isolated, and unworthy of widespread cultural response.

About the author (s)

Suzanne Enck

University of North Texas

Assistant Professor