Zero Tolerance For Domestic Violence Will Only Make It Worse

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Illustration by Sam Woolley
Illustration by Sam Woolley

Over and over in her interviews with law enforcement, Molly Brown said that money was one of the topics that made her husband, New York Giants kicker Josh Brown, angry. A fight over financial mail preceded him pushing her into a door while she was pregnant; years later, when she called King County sheriff’s deputies for help, fearing another physical confrontation, the fight was about their finances; and in between those, Josh Brown admitted to manipulating her with money. Molly Brown told a sheriff’s deputy, prosecutor, and advocate that the subject of money “escalates him.”

Molly Brown’s private hell—physical abuse, psychological abuse, the fear that nobody would believe her—has spilled out in public over the past few months as reporters have laid her life and the lives of her children bare to the world. And all of this eventually gave rise to public anger and demands that the NFL do more than it had by suspending Josh Brown for one game—but only after he admitted to it in his own diary, released by law enforcement. Even in 2016, the word of a woman and multiple witnesses and law enforcement isn’t enough. Only video, or photos, or a confession, it seems, is enough to make the public care.

Still, America had the proof it needed, and despite the fact that Brown had already served a suspension, calls for further punishment, up to and including his banishment from the league, began immediately. Whatever comes, his playing days are likely over; Brown is an excellent kicker, but an inherently marginal player, hardly so valuable that teams will be eager to bring on the new face of domestic violence. And exiling him would certainly make the yelling stop. All the while, though, a basic question has gone unasked: What would the end of Josh Brown’s career mean for Molly Brown and her children?


Remember what started so many of the couple’s fights—worries that they didn’t have enough money. Remember that unemployment is a recognized risk factor in increasing the likelihood of domestic violence. Remember that one leader with the National Network To End Domestic Violence said, “If we would say that the first time your partner calls 911 your career is over, her risk of homicide shoots through the roof.” Remember that Molly Brown is already split up from her husband, and that he needs an income to pay his court-ordered child support. Remember, finally, what Molly Brown told the detective on her case.

“Molly was very fearful of what the future would be like if Josh was cut from the team,” King Count Sheriff’s Det. Robin Ostrum wrote in a report, “and how that would impact his ability to pay child support. [...] Molly was afraid of it becoming a spectacle in the media and that Josh could [lose] his job.”


Be furious at Giants owner John Mara for clearly being an idiot. Be mad at NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for having the gall to say the problem is fans don’t get domestic violence. Be disgusted at the sheriff’s office documents that say Molly Brown confided in several other player wives only to learn that “once their football player husbands found out, even after the letter Josh had written, the players didn’t believe Josh had done anything wrong.”

But don’t bother with the convenient lie that kicking Josh Brown out of the NFL accomplishes anything other than making fans feel less dirty about worshipping at the altar of a sports league that never has viewed its players as anything more than meat. Running him out of football may feel good; it also directly re-victimizes Molly Brown, especially given that she made it clear she wanted no part in the NFL’s punishment of her ex-husband and told authorities she worried about their financial future.


Domestic violence can’t be ended; it can be addressed. That won’t, though, be about get-tough policies, or one-game or six-game or life-long suspensions, or shadow judiciaries, or doing what’s best for public relations, or taking stances that will only drive victims underground. It will require doing something truly radical: treating players and their wives like human beings.

Grandstanding for the sake of grandstanding

Ever since the Ray Rice story dominated headlines, there has been nothing easier for anyone in sports to do than call for sports leagues to get tough on domestic violence. That case offered an easy-seeming lesson—that the NFL in particular and sports at large were appallingly ignorant of the realities of domestic violence and indifferent to dealing with them—and for the past two years, the sports world has been trying to correct for that. Commentators and management now routinely talk like tough-on-crime prosecutors, each arguing for harsher punishment than the last, almost always to rapt applause.


ESPN’s Keith Law has said he doesn’t want Chicago Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman, accused of choking his girlfriend and firing a gun in anger, or José Reyes, who was accused of and suspended for attacking his wife, in baseball; Reyes even playing in the New York Mets’ play-in game caused some consternation. Joe Paterno defender Steve Spurrier’s zero-tolerance policy for players still draws him praise. A few weeks ago, ESPN commentator Jeff Van Gundy said that “any felony committed against a woman should be a full-season suspension,” with the second felony getting him banned. Even United States senators have joined the charge, demanding a zero-tolerance policy for domestic violence in football.

This grandstanding, no matter how well-intentioned, hasn’t made the complicated and life-threatening problem of domestic violence any less dangerous to the people who live with it. What’s more, if leagues were to take up these suggestions, it would almost certainly make the problem worse. What feels good and what is right, especially in cases of domestic violence, are very different things. Zero-tolerance and similar get-tough penalties haven’t worked when used in the criminal-justice system. Expecting them to work in sports would be, at best, naïve.


Mandatory arrest policies can make victims less likely to call police for help. Mandatory sentencing policies don’t work. And mandatory prosecution policies too often result in victims being thrown in jail, turning victims of domestic violence into victims of state violence as well. Take the case of a Seminole County woman who refused to testify against her husband—who choked her, stabbed a staircase with a knife, and pushed her into a microwave, according to police—because the last time she pursued charges against him he lost his job.

“Is it true what you told police?” the judge continued. “Those statements you told to police on the day of this incident… was it true?”

When the woman answered in the affirmative, Collins asked, “Then why wouldn’t you come to testify?”

The woman said she told a state victim’s advocate she wished to drop the charges against her husband, because the last time he went to jail, he lost his job and was unable to pay child support.

“I’m homeless now. I’m living at my parents’ house ... I had to sell everything I own,” the woman cried, adding, “I’m just not in a good place right now.”


The judge threw her in jail after berating her in front of the entire courtroom.

To truly understand why zero-tolerance policies don’t work, though, no matter how righteous they make people feel, you have to listen to Cristina Barnea. She is the woman who called 911 the night her boyfriend, Aroldis Chapman, got in a fight with her, possibly choked her, then fired his gun in anger. And that night, and every time after that, she insisted she did not want him arrested.


I don’t want him to get arrested, you know, he plays baseball”

The 911 dispatcher barely finishes saying “What is your emergency?” that night when Barnea tells her: “Hello, I have an emergency. My husband just got into a fight with me and I’m really scared because I have my daughter and he has a gun.” She starts to give the dispatcher the address but barely chokes it out before adding: “He’s doing the shotguns. He’s doing the shotguns. Oh my God, you guys have to hurry up.”


Over and over, she begs for help to get there as quickly as possible—“You guys have to come here right now ... Oh my God I’m really scared ... He was hitting me in front of everyone”—to the point where the dispatcher has to remind her to take deep breaths and calm down so Barnea can tell her what is going on. At one point, Barnea starts crying. (You can listen to the entire call here.)

Almost three minutes in, her voice a bit steadier, she makes a request: “I just need the cops here, just to control him. Please. That’s all I want.” Then she breaks down crying. “I need you to listen, what color shirt is he wearing,” the 911 operator barked. “I don’t know,” Barnea chokes out through tears.


After a few deep breaths, Barnea’s voice steadies more and the 911 operator is able to get some more from her about what happened and how she’s hiding in the bushes. Then the conversation shifts (emphasis added, here and elsewhere, is mine).

Barnea: “I don’t want him to get arrested or nothing, I’m just really scared.”

Dispatcher: “What do you mean you don’t want ...”

(chatter at the two both talk over each other)

Dispatcher: “Ma’am, ma’am just. Okay.”

Barnea: “I think he’s calm right now.”

Dispatcher: “Do not go over there.”

Barnea describes her surroundings to the dispatcher, but then comes back to asking if Chapman will be arrested. Now she makes it even clearer—she does not want that to happen.

Barnea: “He’s not going to get arrested, you see?”

Dispatcher: “That I don’t know, ma’am. If he’s using a gun. I don’t know. I can’t tell you if he is or if he isn’t. If he’s shooting off a gun for no reason, then, I don’t know. That’s not something he should be doing.

Barnea: “Please, I don’t want him to get arrested, you know, he plays baseball.”

Dispatcher: “Well, but that’s dangerous to be threatening someone with a gun, ma’am! That’s dangerous!”

Barnea: “He’s not threatening me, but I’m just scared. I’m really scared, that’s all. I was just running, you know, and running. Okay, I think he’s calm now.”


The dispatcher tells Barnea to not go back to the house because if Chapman has a gun, she might get hurt. Barnea calls out to someone, and the call drops. The 911 operator tries calling her back; it goes to voicemail.

An hour later, she gives a recorded statement to police. Her voice is calm and steady as she tells the officer, “We got into an argument because I found something related to a woman in his phone, and I wanted to confront him about it.” Chapman had been drinking, she said, and he was mad. “So he was really like aggravated, and I got really scared. He pushed me against the wall. My brother came in. He broke us down. We were arguing and fighting together, whatever, and that’s when I left and I started running. And I was really, I was scared for me and my daughter.”


He asks if she heard anything when she ran out of the house, and she responds “one shotgun.” But she soon adds: “I don’t know who it was. I don’t know what. Nothing.” The officer doesn’t push back, only asking if Chapman owns a gun. She says yes. The officer asks her if she will testify in court against Chapman. She responds, “Yeah, but I don’t want to go to court.” She says her statement is true, and that’s where it ends. (You can listen to the call here.)

Barnea would tell a second officer that night, according to one incident report, that Chapman “had ‘choked’ her by placing his hands around her neck, but did not prevent her from breathing at any time.” The officer said he looked for injuries around her neck but saw none, and soon afterward Barnea told him “she did not want to have any further involvement with the incident,” the report said.


In December, she sent prosecutors a waiver of prosecution. Prosecutors brought her back in January to try talking to her again about what happened and the inconsistencies in her story, but Barnea didn’t budge. She said she had no idea why she said Chapman was hitting her in front of everyone, because he wasn’t. She said Chapman never pushed her up against a wall, but that she fell on the floor because of a chair nearby when Chapman did some sort of poking or pushing to move her out of his personal space. She told the prosecutor that she left the house afterward, and moved back in with Chapman a week later.

Image for article titled Zero Tolerance For Domestic Violence Will Only Make It Worse
Image for article titled Zero Tolerance For Domestic Violence Will Only Make It Worse

When prosecutor Stefanie Newman was done, Barnea’s lawyer asked her one question.

Image for article titled Zero Tolerance For Domestic Violence Will Only Make It Worse

Newman closed out the case with no charges.

MLB made a big splash with its suspension of Chapman for 30 games. It’s drawn little heat, though, for an item quietly slipped into a New York Times report from Aug. 27—as of that date, nearly 10 months after police came to his home, Chapman had been to just one counseling session.


Irrational systems, irrational results

Player-conduct policies are about image control, crisis management, and public relations, with an added dash of labor control. They are not about making players better people.


Acknowledging the dark hypocrisy at their core is crucial to understanding what these policies are. Logically, the spectacle of sports leagues setting up shadow judiciaries to provide ersatz justice having to do with an arbitrary array of offenses makes little sense. Player-conduct regimes have nothing to do with logic, though. They are about letting fans know that they are investing their time, money, and care in something other than amoral branding operations with lines in television and live events; about making sure that an angry public blames labor, not management; and, above all, about making the screaming stop.

The fundamental irrationality of this system leads to irrational results. America’s longstanding moral panic over drugs, for instance, makes it so that an NFL player caught with pot too many times, or a ballplayer caught using PEDs, can come in for stiffer penalties than one who abuses a child or is implicated in a murder. But instead of, say, asking why these leagues are banning players for smoking what Americans are increasingly legalizing, bad policy begets worse policy. Instead of worrying about what victims of domestic violence need—and that should be the only debate being had—the priority is what’s best for the league while commentators fill the airwaves with meaningless debates consisting of little more than gross moral math.


This is how you end up in a world where Stephen A. Smith defends one woman-beater while saying the other isn’t being punished enough. Rather than wondering why leagues are still abusing their connections to the actual criminal-justice system to protect their own, while then using their own internal fake judiciaries as sloppy public-relations tools and turning victims into props they bend to their own needs, commentators point to the harsh punishment for harmless offenses as reason for harsher punishment for serious ones.

The twisted absurdity of the dynamic keeps many from asking a far more important question: Does suspending—or firing, or banning—the man who punched his wife or girlfriend actually do anything to make his partner safer?


There is no easy answer about what will do that. Anger management doesn’t work. Batterer’s intervention programs have had at best mixed results. Banning a player might be necessary at some point if he refuses to learn or grow, but doing so also removes him from the community he respects and can in theory help him. As professor Beth Richie told Jezebel back in 2014, “isolating someone from their meaningful community just means that they displace their violence onto someone else.”

Often, the best thing an employer can do is refer those in need of help to those who can provide it. This isn’t hidden information, and it’s certainly not hidden from the NFL. Take this from an interview with one of their own consultants, Jane Randel:

At Liz Claiborne, the big “a-ha!” moment was when we identified that not knowing what to do was the major barrier to helping someone dealing with domestic violence. However, it’s not a co-worker or manager’s responsibility to be a domestic violence counselor; that’s not their job. The workplace has the responsibility to provide a safe environment for employees and to be a conduit to the organizations and experts that can help. For the most part, companies seem to be comfortable with this role. Just as they wouldn’t be expected to counsel someone with a drug problem, they aren’t qualified to intervene with a victim of domestic violence; they just need to facilitate their referral to resources and professional counselors.


The NFL has not adopted this approach, instead taking from Randel the No More sham. Why, one can only surmise. The truth is that every family is different and every circumstance requires a different approach. There is no one-size-fits-all approach in domestic violence, and acting like there is can lead to taking steps that make things worse. University of Maryland law professor Leigh Goodmark has studied domestic violence and spoken out against zero-tolerance policies. In 2009, she wrote this about mandatory policies in the criminal justice system:

Mandatory policies not only deprive women of choice, they punish women for making choices that the system refuses to sanction, substituting the power of the state for the power of the abusive partner.


Or, in this case, the power of a sports league.

“You will hear of a wife murdered before you hear another one come forward”

Getting tough may keep victims from reporting or seeking support; it may do nothing to heal broken families; and it may in some circumstances actively endanger women. It can also, though, put asses back in the seats, with fans cheering like nothing happened, writers calling for still harsher punishments, and management looking strong. With a few get-tough-on-crime sentences that make absolutely no sense, Jeff Van Gundy got people suggesting he run for president, never mind that his whole scheme depended on securing felony convictions—an extremely unlikely outcome in domestic violence cases and applicable in none of the cases so far in the NBA. There’s no percentage against saying that you think domestic violence is extremely bad, and doing so loudly, so that everyone can hear your voice.


There are voices that matter much more, though—the partners of pro athletes. The few wives of pro athletes who have spoken don’t support heavy league punishments. Janay Rice has said she was upset that the Baltimore Ravens cut her husband. Two former NFL wives told the Washington Post back in 2014 that harsh punishment will only discourage reporting.

If the league is serious about ending domestic violence in its ranks, it must rehabilitate instead of punish, they say. Penalties should be less draconian, so wives don’t worry about ending their husbands’ careers or threatening their families’ livelihoods. “They use [the NFL’s current policies] as leverage against you,” says the ex-wife of the Saints player. “There’s abuse on every team. Everybody knows, but you know not to tell.” Ultimately, she says, the case against Ray Rice has made the NFL less safe for women:

“You will hear of a wife murdered before you hear another one come forward.”

You can hear those words reflected back in the cases since then. An ex-girlfriend of an NFL player accused of domestic violence told the MMQB, “My goal was never to ruin his life ... I just want him to get help.” Cristina Barnea directly said she did not want her boyfriend arrested “because he’s in baseball.” Molly Brown refused to cooperate with NFL investigators. Lost in all the yelling for league to get tough is what Molly Brown told the detective investigating her case: She didn’t trust the NFL, because, frankly, why should she?

Molly stated that she had no idea how this woman got her phone number, and she feared it was actually a reporter calling her posing as someone from the NFL. Either way, Molly told me that she had a very limited conversation with the woman and told her that she did not want to speak to her about any of this. Molly told me that if it truly was someone from the NFL calling her, she would not trust them to really be having her or her children’s best interest in mind. Molly stated that the NFL would only be looking to bury this whole incident and protect Josh.


These women are trying to find what will make them safe again, but they know what won’t help. Sending their partners to the unemployment line won’t help them; creating a disincentive for victims to reach out for support won’t help them; and using victims as props in public-relations campaigns won’t help them. What they need is for their opinions to matter, and to be treated like human beings.

If you or someone you know needs help, the National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 1-800-799-7233 or by clicking here.