Accomplished sports journalists discuss coverage of domestic violence

Domestic violence continues to be a problem in professional sports. The online publication FiveThirtyEight found that domestic violence accounts for 48 percent of arrests among NFL players, compared to 21 percent of arrests for men aged 25-29.

How – and whether – sportswriters cover domestic violence in sports was the subject of a panel discussion at MU on April 11 for the journalism conference Words Matter. Accomplished writers Seth Wickersham, Wright Thompson and Angela Busch Denker discussed how their own writing in the sports world can address social issues such as mental health and domestic violence.

Thompson and Wickersham had similar opinions on how fame affects the psyche of athletes in the limelight. Thompson commented on how fame affects mental health and its association to domestic violence.

“No one has done a study yet on the effects of fame, but I think one day someone will and they will find that fame is a mental disease like drug addiction,” Thompson said.

Wickersham had a similar theory on fame and “greatness.” When he has written articles on abuse, like his article last year on ESPN.com, “What’s next for Kurt Busch and Patricia Driscoll,” he has focused on the psyche of someone “great,” and the cost of greatness. In his stories, he attempts to empathize with athletes to better understand their motivations.

“When you’re talking about lead athletes… often they aren’t the most balanced people,” Wickersham said. “I think about that when I think about these star athletes fail to control that imbalance…you know, what’s their release valve? Is it dog fighting, is it controlling their other partner?”

Busch Denker brought the perspective of the victim to the discussion. Busch Denker had an interesting perspective as a former sports reporter and current pastor in southern California who works in domestic violence shelters for women.

“Often the culture really works to protect the abuser, whether it is the man or the woman,” Busch Denker said. “And I think in sports that is heightened. There are a lot of systems in place to protect the person doing the abusing.”

Sports journalism has addressed social issues in the past, such as sexuality, drug use and racism. The issue of domestic violence within the world of national sports has come to light in the last few years. Video of Ray Rice abusing his then-fiance in 2014 sparked national debate on the topic of professional athletes and domestic abuse. In 2015 the wound opened again when Rice was dismissed on charges of sexual assault. Though the video and investigation caused the NFL to start a campaign to bring awareness to domestic violence and sexual assault, the cause of the issue continues in the professional football world. In the first four weeks of the 2015 NFL season, five players were suspended, three due to violence. Two of those cases involved violence against women. Despite free-agent linebacker Brandon Spikes pleading guilty earlier that year to a hit-and-run, he initially was suspended only for four games. There were many suspensions directly due to assault in 2015 as well.

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Ray Rice at the Baltimore Ravens training camp August 20, 2009. Photo by Keith Allison

Statistics of abuse by star athletes are useful, but Busch Denker feels that this sort of record keeping doesn’t help address the social issue of domestic violence.

“All the emphasis is on the athlete that has been accused, what effect is it going to have on their career,” she said. “And the victim becomes invisible. And it’s very hard to empathize with someone that is invisible, that you know nothing about.”

She suggests thinking about the journalistic practice of not naming the victim in stories about abuse or rape and making the story focus on the issue of the violence, or not focus on the abuser.

Her final advice for the journalism world was to support young female sportswriters. She pointed to how different her answers and perspectives were from her male colleagues on stage.

“There are so many incredible male sports writers out there,” she said. “But they’re also never going to understand what it’s like to be objectified based on what you’re wearing or how you look. So I think it’s important to keep women in these positions to tell stories in a different way.”

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