Punch Like a Man

Big-Time Sports’ Domestic Violence Problem

Perhaps it’s understandable that it got lost in the shuffle. What with John Rocker’s mouth and Ray Lewis’s double homicide rap hogging the headlines, maybe there just wasn’t room for the cases of Pedro Astacio and Bobby Chouinard to make it out of the small type of the wire stories.

On January 28, Astacio, the ace of the Colorado Rockies pitching staff, pleaded guilty to third-degree assault for punching his wife, Ana, in the face last August. A week later, the Arizona Diamondbacks announced that they had released Chouinard—a middle reliever—"at his own request." This after the 27-year-old pitcher apparently abused his wife, Erica, choking her, slapping her, and finally pointing a loaded handgun at her head.

Maybe it's understandable, but maybe not. The wave of NFL players accused of serious crimes—most notably Lewis and Rae Carruth—has gotten plenty of play in the sports pages, mostly focused on the specter of African American males on the rampage. But violence against women, say experts in the field, is a problem across the board among athletes of all races.

It's due to many things, say the experts, but mainly it's a question of privilege. With big-time, well-paid athletes, "it's all about the money and the power and what you can get away with," according to Kathy Redmond, of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes (NCAVA). Certainly, athletes tend to make up a disproportionate part of the battering population. One much cited 1995 study of 10 Division I colleges found that while athletes made up just 3.3 percent of the student body, they were responsible for 19 percent of all sexual assaults reported to campus authorities and 35 percent of reported batteries.

For anecdotal evidence, one need look no further than baseball, where Astacio (if he avoids deportation, which the Dominican Republic native now faces as a result of his guilty plea) and Chouinard (if he avoids jail time and resumes his career, as is anticipated) will have plenty of clubhouse company as reported wife-beaters. In San Francisco, they can visit with Barry Bonds, who was arrested in 1993 after his then wife reported that he grabbed her around the neck, threw her against their car, and kicked her while she was on the ground (she later refused to cooperate with prosecutors and charges were not filed); in Pittsburgh, they can wave across the field to Wil Cordero, who was arrested for spousal abuse in 1997, was released by the Red Sox, and this winter signed a $9 million contract with the Pirates. For interleague play, there's Jose Canseco, who in 1992 rammed his first wife's car with his own, then five years later was back in court after hitting his second wife in the face. And in Atlanta, there's John Rocker's manager, Bobby Cox, who in 1995 was charged with battery for punching his wife, Pamela (he was not convicted).

Add football players Carruth (charged with murdering his pregnant girlfriend, Cherica Adams, and since relieved of employment by the Carolina Panthers) and Steve Muhammad (spared a murder rap when a coroner determined that his wife, Nichole, died as a result of injuries sustained in a November car crash, not the beating he delivered several days earlier), and you have the makings of an epidemic.

As to that question of why so many male athletes mistake their mates for punching bags, researchers point to a variety of causes: drug and alcohol use, steroids, the sense of invincibility that comes from being a young millionaire, even groupies (who cause domestic abuse by sowing tensions over infidelity in the household, according to the suspect theory of researcher Jeff Benedict). Then there's the observation that men who are praised for knocking people senseless on the field might have trouble lowering their fists when they return to the real world; as Nancy Scannell, director of public policy for Jane Doe Inc., The Massachusetts Coalition Against Sexual Assault & Domestic Violence, says of Mike Tyson, "Here's this man who makes a living beating people up, and then we're astonished when he forces sex on someone! I thought, this actually makes more sense than any rape I've ever heard about."

It's a tempting correlation, but far too easy, says NCAVA's Redmond, whose organization advises and counsels victims of athlete violence at the pro and college levels. Redmond notes that the sport she's been hearing the most reports on lately is men's pro volleyball. "That tells me that it's not necessarily the violence [of the sport]; it's the fact that you have pro tours where the money's coming in," she says.

The sense of entitlement that results, say many experts in athlete violence, is the key: athletes are told from high school on up that their athletic prowess puts them above the law—by cops who let them off for speeding tickets, club owners who hush up their abusive behavior in order to ensure a steady flow of celebrities through their doors, college administrators and pro team officials who cut deals to keep their star players on the field.

"If you give somebody so much extra privilege in certain areas, and so much adulation, it warps their sense of what their boundaries are. I don't want to say it does it to everybody, but that's a very common dynamic," says Stephen Grams, whose Tucson-based SAGE is one of the first licensed batterer-counseling groups in the country. "And on top of that, what they're getting their adulation for often has to do with their physical prowess." Grams says he sees this pattern at work among the police and military, other occupations that show high rates of domestic abuse.

It's this same warped sense of masculinity-as-violence that pervades the culture of men's sports—especially in what Don Sabo, a professor at D'Youville College in Buffalo and author of several books on sports and violence, calls the "combat sport subculture" of games like football. In this world where athleticism, manliness, and violence are all melded into one seamless unit, the common schoolyard taunt of "you throw like a girl" is trumped only by what Sabo refers to as coaches' "Doomsday Weapon": "You play like a fag."

The same week that Bud Selig was handing down his (since-reduced) punishment of Rocker, Rockies hurler Astacio copped a plea in his battering case. Asked if the team planned to address the matter of one of their players being convicted of a violent crime, a Rockies spokesperson would only repeat that "the Rockies organization recognizes that domestic discord is a serious problem in our country today." Bud Selig's office did not return phone calls inquiring into possible punishment for Astacio.

While NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said during the Super Bowl that the NFL has "a very comprehensive, very active set of programs" in place, he apparently was referring to the league's programs against drug and alcohol abuse—a league spokesperson was unable to give any details on a specific antiviolence program. The baseball commissioner's office, meanwhile, when asked about its policy on domestic violence, deferred to the players' union, whose spokesperson would say only that there is an employee assistance program in place for players, adding quickly, "Obviously, the nature of these programs is confidential."

Most domestic violence advocates and counselors report getting the cold shoulder when approaching the sports establishment about expanded programs. NCAVA's Redmond, who is in the process of pitching her own antiviolence curriculum to pro leagues and colleges, complains that "a lot of the athletic departments and the sports teams want the easy liability answer: Have a one-day seminar, and if the athletes don't learn anything, fine, but at least we covered our butts."

Instead, teams usually see their role as providing "support" for their players, even when this might conflict with the needs of their victims. In the 1997 Cordero case, recalls Jane Doe Inc.'s Scannell, Ana Cordero "was in court by herself with the district attorney, and [he] had the attorneys from the Red Sox," while star first baseman Mo Vaughn made a public statement of support for his teammate. Ana Cordero ultimately refused to testify against her husband and asked that the charges be dropped (he was convicted of spousal abuse anyway).

"You see that the league's level of responsibility is to get their players back on the field," former pro quarterback Donald McPherson says of the NFL. "They will give the standard 'We need to get all the facts, we need to go through the judiciary system,' and after that it's not their responsibility."

McPherson, the 1987 Heisman Trophy runner-up, who now runs youth antiviolence programs on Long Island, is skeptical of pro leagues' seriousness about the issue. What's needed is action and not words, he concludes: "As long as people just criticize it and move on with their lives, nothing will make them change."

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