The video, once again, is brutal. In the recording from The Metropolitan at the 9 hotel in Cleveland, you can see Kareem Hunt shove and kick a 19-year-old woman. The day the video was published by TMZ, Hunt still was a running back with the Kansas City Chiefs. That night, he was cut. Nobody has signed Hunt yet, and that grew increasingly unlikely after TMZ and KCTV5 reported that Hunt had been the suspect in an assault at a nightclub earlier this year. (The case was dropped when the complainant stopped speaking to police.)
What unfolds in the video is truly awful to watch. The sports media, in turn, did what it does best—got angry and churn out takes. Anger sells, and it’s relatively easy to spit out a few hundred words about how appalled you are by domestic violence. The same way “tough on crime” can be the ticket to winning elections for top prosecutors, “tough on domestic violence” is all but a given among modern sportswriters. Which is fine, I suppose—it’s better than being for domestic violence. But lost in all the outrage and hot takes was a key fact: What Hunt did wasn’t domestic violence. It wasn’t intimate-partner violence. It is in no way covered by the Violence Against Women Act.
Yet sportswriters ignored this inconvenient fact from the get-go. They compared Hunt’s actions to when ex-Ravens running back Ray Rice cold-cocked his wife. They brought up Jovan Belcher, who murdered his girlfriend and then took his own life. They brought up Reuben Foster, who has been charged with misdemeanor domestic violence. Again and again, they declared that Hunt committed domestic violence, ignoring that that’s a specific crime with a specific definition, and that activists worked for years to have that specific crime treated as something separate from “hitting a woman.” In doing so, they reduced the woman who had been shoved and kicked to someone defined by her presumed relationship to a man.
But why let the facts get in the way of a narrative?
What is domestic violence? The federal government’s definition is a bit wonky, but it covers the bases well, and most other definitions don’t stray too far from it:
The term “domestic violence” includes felony or misdemeanor crimes of violence committed by a current or former spouse or intimate partner of the victim, by a person with whom the victim shares a child in common, by a person who is cohabitating with or has cohabitated with the victim as a spouse or intimate partner, by a person similarly situated to a spouse of the victim under the domestic or family violence laws of the jurisdiction receiving grant monies, or by any other person against an adult or youth victim who is protected from that person’s acts under the domestic or family violence laws of the jurisdiction.
You’ll notice that intimate relationships are the key here. That’s because the cycle of domestic violence is possible, in part, due to those connections. These connections—from children to bank accounts to shared space—contribute to the emotional power the abuser has over their victim, which allows victims to be manipulated into staying in dangerous relationships. It’s a cycle of violence, not a one-time act, a cycle that if allowed to continue can grow to consume every waking moment of a person’s life. The cycle is so insidious and yet so well known it has its own visualization, the power and control wheel.
Hunt appears to have met the woman he shoved and kicked just once. In Cleveland, police took two reports at the hotel; neither mentioned any sort of significant relationship between Hunt and the woman. Everyone who spoke to police said Hunt and the woman met through a mutual friend; in her interview with police, captured by body camera, the woman tells police, “I just met him today, the person who assaulted me.”
So there’s no intimate-partner relationship to speak of; in fact, it would be pushing it to say there was any sort of relationship at all. Could you call them acquaintances? Perhaps. But domestic violence or intimate-partner violence requires a deeper relationship.
This does not take away from the pain and anguish the woman shows in the video, or mitigate any trauma from what happened to her. But not all trauma is domestic violence. This kind of violence is simply covered by the more traditional parts of the law, crimes such as battery and assault.
Sportswriters got this wrong in many ways. Some just couldn’t help themselves and immediately reached for the most convenient comparisons. Like this tweet:
At Yahoo, Kimberley A. Martin compared two recent cases: Foster, who has been charged with slapping his ex-girlfriend, and Hunt. “I’m sick of people acting like they care about domestic violence,” she wrote. I am too! But only one of these fits the bill.
Writing at the Daily Beast, Robert Silverman asserted that watching the Hunt video, “it’s impossible not to recall Ray Rice.” Sure, both involved video, and both involved a man hitting a woman. But the comparison, at best, only partially works, because Rice was filmed harming his then-fiancée, putting it in an entirely separate category. (Silverman also throws in the Foster case.) At Sports Illustrated, Michael Rosenberg’s column started out fine before veering into its own outrageous Rice comparison: He argues there is one major difference between the Rice case and Hunt’s case—one of the men was criminally charged and the other was not. His column goes on and on without ever mentioning the other, really obvious difference: What Hunt did was not domestic violence.
There’s more. Will Leitch called Hunt’s case a “high-profile domestic violence incident” in a column for New York magazine. Vice Sports headlined Britni de la Cretaz’s column “Kareem Hunt and a Sports World that Ignores Domestic Violence Victims.” Multiple outlets, including NFL Media, interviewed Rice, who said he wanted to help Hunt. While there is no reason to think his offer doesn’t from a place of compassion, reporters seeking out his perspective specifically doesn’t make sense.
Men hitting women is bad, and Hunt’s actions in the video should be condemned. But calling them “domestic violence” is only possible if you assume that there is nothing unique about a man controlling, abusing, and manipulating his partner. The phrase exists to remind us that physical and emotional abuse of women by their intimate partners has a specific and very dark history. For centuries, it was perfectly legal for a man to legally beat his wife. Domestic violence is a tool of oppression and it must be acknowledged and fully understood before it ever can be snuffed out. To rob the phrase of its meaning, as sportswriters have done, erases feminists’ effort to change that history. It also erases the victim herself by defining her only in relation to a man—even when, as in this case, the relationship barely exists.
Some will certainly argue that this is the wrong point to focus on. Imprecise outrage is better than when sportswriters ignored players’ “off-the-field issues.” It’s better than when sportswriters always took a league or team’s side. But I refuse to believe that I must settle for a standard as low as “at least sportswriters get angry when women get hit.” If they’re going to write hot takes about how much they care about domestic violence, they should bother to learn what the words mean. When we ignore the details of how domestic violence works in favor or turning it into a catch-all phrase, we turn domestic violence into just another piece of jargon—something catchy and meaningless, just one more cool Twitter quote for the sports-media machine.