Extenuating circumstances for sports-stars guilty of committing domestic violence?

S.L. Price, a Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated, once said, “All great athletes carry the seed of cruelty; it’s their job and their passion to beat the other guy, to undress his weaknesses and to reveal him as a loser in public.”

We as sports fans admire character traits in professional athletes that would otherwise be condemned outside of the arena. We celebrate one athlete’s physical dominance over another and jump from our seats to yell words of active encouragement when fights break out. We cheer at bone-crunching hits or tackles, and we provide rounds of applause and standing ovations when one guy hits another so hard that he is barely conscious…

Of course, there is an argument for this kind of ‘legitimised’ violence within the sporting arena; it provides an additional element of excitement for us as spectators. But does the acceptance and promotion of hypermasculinity and violence within the sporting context result in fans excusing their favourite players for committing abominable acts of physical abuse outside of their professional boundaries?

Slava Voynov,  a second-round pick in 2008 and once top-pairing Defenceman for the LA Kings, is amidst an attempt at returning to the NHL. In 2014, Voynov was charged with felony domestic violence as a result of attacking his wife at their Southern California home. He plead no contest to causing “corporal injury to a spouse with great bodily injury” after punching her in the jaw, attempting to strangle her, kicking her repeatedly whilst she was on the ground and smashing her face through a flat screen tv.

As a result of these actions, he spent 2 months in jail, despite claiming that the incident was an accident…

He opted to return to Russia on his release (avoiding deportation) where he continued a successful hockey career for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL, winning 1 Gagarin Cup and helping the OAR hockey team to claim the gold medal at the Pyeongchang Olympics.

Policy related to domestic violence in Russia is different – ‘moderate’ forms of domestic violence; beatings of spouses or children that result in bruising or bleeding but not broken bones, are only punishable by 15 days in prison or a fine… If they do not happen more than once a year.

So long as they have no broken bones, people can anticipate their annual beating. Providing they survived the previous ones of course…

In the West, however, this is not the case – If Voynov had gone to trial and been convicted, he could have faced up to 9 years in prison for his crimes.

I digress…

Sure, athletes are human – they make human mistakes. I’ve seen hoards of fans championing the idea that Voynov should be given a second chance in the NHL, claiming that he made ONE ‘mistake’ – often referring to the fact that he’s a high-end D man that could make an immediate impact on their team as a point of justification.

Incidentally, Marta told the police that this was not the first time that he had been violent towards her, so he is likely not to have just made one ‘mistake’ by ‘accident’.

But if they are human, then surely they should be subject to human standards, and not granted unwarranted “superhuman” status, where they are exempt from the normal rules of society and normal human judgment.

Let me ask you this. If Voynov had broken your son’s/daughter’s/wife’s/husband’s/friend’s/anyone-you-know’s jaw, would you still grant him that second chance?

Let’s look at the facts:

A study conducted in the late 90’s revealed an approximate conviction rate of around 36% for US athletes accused of domestic violence. Another study revealed that the conviction rate for those accused of domestic violence among the general population was around 75%.

To put that into context, if you’re a professional athlete you’re over 50% more likely to go unpunished for domestic violence compared to your average Joe.

If you are in the camp convinced that Voynov should not return to the NHL, don’t be so sure that common sense will prevail. Let’s have a look at the history of similar cases:

Craig MacTavish, who was playing for the Boston Bruins at the time, was convicted of vehicular homicide in the mid 90’s for mowing down and killing a 26-year-old woman whilst drunk.  He spent one year in prison and on his release, was signed with the Edmonton Oilers where he was rewarded with a warm welcome and a Captaincy to boot. He is now head of hockey operations in Edmonton.

Ray Rice, a former NFL running back, was caught on camera beating his fiance in an elevator until she was unconscious. Despite their being hard footage of the incident, Rice’s punishment consisted of a slap on the wrist and a few weeks of counselling. Then a reinstatement of his multi-million dollar contract and super-star status.

Floyd Mayweather was sentenced to three months in prison for strangling his wife in front of his children and threatening to make her “disappear”. On his release, he was permitted to continue doing in the ring what he had previously been imprisoned for doing outside of the ring.

Voynov is now going through the appeal process to be allowed to re-establish himself as a sports-star in the NHL. But the hurdles aren’t particularly great! Many sports-superstars before him have been successful at re-establishing their careers after being found guilty of domestic violence.

Considering the scrutiny that the NFL was subjected to after allowing Ray Rice to return with little consequence, I feel that the NHL would be making a monumental mistake by allowing Voynov to return to professional hockey in North America – a blemish and reputation that the NHL could do without.

These are men that young children and aspiring athletes idolise. This “superhuman” status that they are granted means that acceptance or indifference is often the response from leagues, teams, coaches, other players, the media, fans and the law it seems. These are not the kind of people that I would choose as role models to my sons or daughters.

When violence is legitimised in sport, it has the potential to foster acceptance of violence beyond professional boundaries, with sports-stars getting off lightly with horrifying and violent crimes with both the law and wider society.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that all contact sports should be immediately banned – far from it. I’m just saying that professional athletes who end up taking legitimised violence and applying the same code of conduct outside of the controlled environment with unwilling combatants should not be permitted to continue being celebrated as superstars for the same behaviour that landed them in jail! In addition to that, I’m suggesting the fans justifying these crimes on the basis that these athletes are just human beings making “human mistakes”, make sure that these athletes are judged with the same level of scrutiny that the rest of us mere mortals would be subject to!

It’s easy to say that Voynov should be given a second chance, but would you still be championing that way of thinking if it were you bearing the responsibility of making that decision?

The NHL has made a massive effort in recent seasons to promote its self as an inclusive sport, free of prejudice and judgment…

But I really think they should draw the line at wife beaters and domestic abusers.

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