A double standard when it comes to athletes and domestic violence
Mets' Francisco Rodriguez among athletes recently charged with domestic violence
Domestic violence typically occurs behind closed doors, but not with athletes
Most people would get fired for violent behavor, but athletes given more chances
It has been a bruising two weeks for the girlfriends of a few high-profile athletes.
On Monday Indiana Pacers rookie Lance Stephenson, 19, was arraigned on charges of felony assault, menacing and harassment in New York City for allegedly attacking the 21-year-old mother of his child. Prosecutors in the Brooklyn DA's office allege that Stephenson pushed his girlfriend Jasmine Williams down of flight of stairs at her Coney Island, N.Y., apartment building early Sunday morning. With the victim lying at the bottom of the stairs, Stephenson, according to a criminal complaint made public by the DA's office, then picked up her head and slammed it on the bottom step. Williams was later treated at an area hospital for head and back wounds.
Four days earlier, Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez was arrested outside the team's family lounge at Citi Field and charged with assaulting Carlos Pena, the 53-year-old grandfather of his infant twins. According to published reports, Rodriguez had been verbally berating his girlfriend, Daian Pena, with f-bombs before Pena came to his daughter's defense and was assaulted. Pena was treated for injuries and he and his daughter were granted a protection order against Rodriguez.
The publicity around the Rodriguez arrest overshadowed another domestic violence incident that occurred the same day and involved former Carolina Panthers linebacker Mark Fields. Authorities in Arizona arrested Fields for allegedly beating the mother of his 6-year-old daughter outside a child care facility in Goodyear. Witnesses told police that Fields, 37, grabbed his ex-girlfriend by the throat and choked her before throwing her to the ground and threatening to kill her. Fields faces felony charges of aggravated assault and interfering with an educational institution and a misdemeanor count of endangerment.
It's pretty sobering to visualize a big muscular athlete knocking down a woman or pummeling a grandfather. Against the sheer violence involved in each of these cases, it's easy to overlook the fact that each of these incidents played out in front of plenty of witnesses. Typically, domestic violence is the kind of crime that goes on behind closed doors, where bullies carry out threats and violence without fear of being seen or caught.
But athletes are less prone to fear consequences, especially when it comes to their off-the-field behavior. Fields confronted his ex-girlfriend outside a child care facility at 5 o'clock on a Monday afternoon. Rodriguez couldn't have picked a more public place to berate his girlfriend and strike her father than at a ballpark, never mind the fact that there were security guards on hand.
Most of us would consider this behavior pretty brazen. Yet athletes who run afoul of the law are used to getting out of jams. Look at Stephenson. While starring at Abraham Lincoln High in Coney Island Stephenson and a teammate were arrested in October 2008 for allegedly sexually abusing a 17-year-old girl inside the school. At the time, Stephenson was being recruited by schools like North Carolina, Kansas, Memphis, USC and many others. He was on his way to becoming the all-time leading scorer in New York state history and leading his team to four consecutive New York City championships. He'd become such a big phenomenon that a courtside announcer had nicknamed him "Born Ready" and a reality web series about him was being planned under the same name.
All of that was jeopardized by the felony sexual assault case pending against him. But here's where it pays for an abuser to be an athlete. After Stephenson pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of disorderly conduct, the University of Cincinnati offered him a scholarship. He became the Big East's Rookie of the Year in 2010 and was selected drafted by the Indiana Pacers in the second round of June's NBA Draft. It was as if the incident at his high school didn't matter.
But these matters often come back to bite teams that sign players with a rap sheet. Now Pacers GM Larry Bird has to decide what to do. If Stephenson is convicted on felony assault charges for the incident last weekend, he'll face a minimum of seven years in prison. The team just signed him to a contract that reportedly guarantees him $700,000 this year and $800,000 next year. The only thing Bird has said so far is that the organization will send a clear message to the community that cannot be ignored.
The only person who needs a clear message is Stephenson. He may have been born ready to play hoops, but the game is doing him no favors by enabling him to keep skirting responsibility for his actions. Until his case is resolved, the last place he should be is in an NBA uniform.
The case against Rodriguez is a little different. The Mets signed him to a three-year, $37 million contract. The team is reportedly looking into whether they can void the contract on account that Rodriguez injured his pitching hand during the clubhouse incident. The team ought to consider voiding the contract based simply on the fact that an assault was committed on team property. Most employers wouldn't hesitate to dump an employee that displayed violent behavior in the workplace, particularly if he was arrested.
Earlier this year, NBA Commissioner David Stern came down hard on Washington Wizard teammates Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton after the two were involved in a locker room dispute involving guns. No shots were fired. But both players pleaded guilty to possessing unlicensed firearms and Stern suspended them for 50 games on the grounds that it was "potentially dangerous" to other players and anybody else that might have been around.
The length of the suspensions raised a lot of eyebrows. But these players had brought guns into the workplace. Moreover, Stern was reacting to the fact that there are simply too many pro players getting arrested on gun charges these days.
Domestic violence is an equally pervasive problem. Yet teams and the leagues seem afraid to tackle it with the same degree of seriousness. During the offseason, Miami Dolphins lineman Phillip Merling was arrested after his pregnant girlfriend called 911 and begged for help while she was barricaded inside the couple's bathroom.
The police report states: "Merling, knowing that Kristen Lennon is pregnant with their second child, did intentionally strike the victim on or about the face and head against her will causing redness and swelling. The victim also sustained a laceration to her lip."
Merling, who has pleaded not guilty, is 6-foot-5 and weighs more than 300 pounds. He was jailed and charged with aggravated battery on a pregnant woman. Still, Dolphins GM Bill Parcells failed to suspend Merling. That prompted one writer to chide Parcells for having stated at his introductory news conference back in 2007 that he didn't want any "thugs and hoodlums" on his team. Yet when the Dolphins minicamp opened earlier this year, the player slated to replace Merling in the lineup was 6-7, 305-pound lineman Tony McDaniel, who had been arrested on domestic violence charges earlier in 2010 after his girlfriend called 911. As a college player at Tennessee, McDaniel was charged with felony aggravated assault after punching a man's face and breaking four bones, for which he later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.
I understand why the leagues are concerned about the number of players that carry guns. Wherever there's a gun there's a risk of danger. But the fist of pro athlete is also capable of being pretty lethal. If GMs aren't willing to suspend or dismiss players that abuse their wives or girlfriends, maybe it's time the leagues start cracking down. The situation has gotten beyond embarrassing.
Jeff Benedict is a distinguished Professor of English at Southern Virginia University and the author of several books on athletes and violence, including Out of Bounds and Pros and Cons. Check out his website at jeffbenedict.com.
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