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The Very Different Ways Pro Sports Punish Domestic Abusers

Oddly enough, the UFC takes the strongest stance against athletes who abuse their partners

A week ago today, after more than a year of investigation, the NFL suspended 22-year-old Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott six games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy as it relates to domestic violence.

Unlike some of the NFL’s other recent high-profile domestic violence cases — particularly those involving Ray Rice and Josh Brown — the evidence against Elliott wasn’t as clear-cut. Both Elliott and the Cowboys have steadfastly maintained his innocence, and there were conflicting witness reports as well as no video evidence of the main incident in question. On the flip side, Tiffany Thompson, Elliott’s now ex-girlfriend, cooperated with NFL investigators and posted photos of her bruises on Instagram, which in the end seemed to be what convinced the NFL of Elliott’s guilt.

But as Diana Moskovitz smartly pointed out on Deadspin in the hours after the suspension’s announcement, the NFL still hasn’t show much consistency on the issue and mainly plays to public opinion as opposed to any kind of codified domestic violence policy (e.g., Rice was suspended only two games and Brown just one for cases that had much more concrete evidence):

[T]he six-game suspension doesn’t address why the NFL was able to throw the book at Ezekiel Elliott, at least unless it gets reduced on appeal: They had a highly cooperative witness, which seemed to matter more than in previous cases when they held piles of evidence and still doled out measly suspensions. Is what happened to Tiffany Thompson six times worse than what happened to Molly Brown? Three times as bad as what happened to Janay Rice? There is no way to escape the message sent here to victims. Play our game and we’ll throw the book at a player; ignore us and we’ll blame you.

This, however, is far from an NFL issue. Most of the professional sports leagues have struggled to find consistency when dealing with players who have been accused, charged and/or convicted of domestic violence. Or better put, the only consistent thing about their policies is that they’re inconsistent — as well as relatively new, almost all of them inspired by the public relations nightmare the NFL suffered during the Rice case (in which video evidence showed Rice punching out the woman who would later become his wife).

Here then is a look at how each sporting body — from boxing to baseball to MMA — punishes athletes who have committed acts of domestic abuse.

Boxing: Basically Nothing

At 40 years old, Floyd Mayweather Jr. is the highest paid athlete in any sport in history. For his most recent fights, Mayweather walked away with an estimated $230 million per bout, which is twice the $115 million Tiger Woods made in his best year ever. But while Woods’ domestic troubles have kept his earnings down recently, Mayweather — with a total of 13 domestic violence charges against him — is on track to have his best earnings year yet as his next fight against Conor McGregor is set to eclipse the Super Bowl in terms of revenue.

Source: Forbes

This despite the fact that Mayweather was arrested on September 9, 2010, for hitting the mother of his children and threatening to kill her. “I’m going to kill you and the man you are messing around with,” the police report quoted him as saying. He then began punching her in the back of the head. This move — called a “rabbit punch” — is deadly enough that it’s banned from both boxing and MMA.

In short: Mayweather hit the mother of three of his children in such a way that would have disqualified him from winning a fight, but apparently, not from the sport of boxing itself.

A judge sentenced Mayweather in December 2011, but allowed him to remain free to get a guaranteed $35 million for a fight against Miguel Cotto in 2012. He was later fined $2,500, or 1/14,000th of the money he made between his conviction and his arrival in jail.

On June 1, 2012, Mayweather entered Clark County Detention Center in Las Vegas to serve an 87-day sentence for domestic assault. He was out in just over two months. Even afterward, this conviction — or any of the other domestic violence charges and accusations against — never kept him from earning a dollar in boxing.

National Hockey League: Unclear

In 2014, Russian-born Slava Voynov of the L.A. Kings got into an argument with his wife outside of a Halloween party. He later shoved her to the ground, and she gashed her head on a wall-mounted flat screen TV. She required eight stitches and indicated to a nurse that it wasn’t the first time he’d abused her. Voynov was immediately suspended from the NHL and later subjected to deportation, although he ended up leaving for Russia voluntarily.

Still, there’s talk of him returning to the NHL. And as VICE Sports later noted, the league continues to dole out inconsistent punishments, mostly making it up the policy as it goes along, mostly addressing the issue via a 2016 player education program on domestic violence and sexual assault.

National Football League: A 6-Game Suspension for First Offenders; Lifetime Ban for A Second Offense

On February 15, 2014, Ray Rice was charged with assault on Janay Rice (his then-girlfriend, now wife) in Atlantic City. It didn’t seem like a big deal at first. “He’s coming off a rough year,” SB Nation wrote at the time, more focused on his on-the-field production than his off-the-field troubles, “in which he rushed for just four touchdowns and 660 yards.” But four days later, a video leaked showing Rice dragging his girlfriend’s unconscious body from a hotel elevator.

In March, when a grand jury indicted Rice, the Ravens released this statement, “We know there is more to Ray Rice than this one incident.”

On July 24, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice.

For two games.

The NFL policy at the time was unclear and relied heavily on the police and court system. As ESPN reported at the time:

First-time offenders [for domestic violence], such as Rice, typically are suspended a month or less by the league. In the past three years, only 12 players have received more than four-game suspensions, and all were repeat offenders.

On August 28, and under significant public pressure from a now 7-month-old scandal that was threatening his job security, Goodell announced changes to the NFL’s domestic violence policy: A six-game suspension without pay for the first offense, and a lifetime ban for the second. He openly admitted that he “didn’t get it right” in suspending Rice for only two games.

However, shortly after, on September 8, another video leaked, this one from inside the elevator that showed Rice striking Janay. Rice was terminated from his contract with the Ravens and suspended indefinitely from the NFL in accordance with its new policy.

Former FBI Director Bob Mueller (yes, Trump/Russia Mueller) later came in to investigate. The NFL claimed it didn’t see the elevator video; while law enforcement claimed they sent the league a copy of the tape in April. Mueller took a Watergate-esque approach: What did the NFL know, and when did they know it? The Mueller probe found that the NFL knew of the video of Rice hitting the woman inside the elevator, but only acted on it when it was released to the public.

As Moskovitz noted, it’s been all over the map ever since — with kicker Josh Brown being suspended just one game despite his ex-wife claiming he abused her on at least 20 occasions and Elliott getting the maximum punishment for a first-time offense with less damning evidence.

National Basketball Association: 24-Game Suspension

“We learn from other leagues’ experiences,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced in response to the Rice incident on September 22, 2014. “We’re studying everything that’s been happening in the NFL.”

Previously, the NBA had no consistent policy. Players were typically given either no suspension — as in the case of Lance Stephenson who was accused of pushing his pregnant girlfriend down the stairs — or up to a three-game suspension.

Post-Rice, though, Silver took quick action in November 2014 when guests at an East Lansing Marriott called security to report a loud argument in another room. Inside, they found Charlotte Hornets small forward Jeffery Taylor, who reportedly pushed a woman during an argument and punched a hole in the wall. Silver suspended Taylor for 24 games, and he’s been playing in Spain pretty much ever since.

Major League Baseball: 51-Game Suspension

“At no time in the last quarter of a century has there been a commissioner-level sanctioning of any [baseball] player for domestic violence, and most teams haven’t bothered either,” SB Nation reported in 2014 in the midst of the Rice investigation.

In fact, the SB Nation report found higher incidences of domestic assault in baseball than other sports, but zero oversight or guidelines in punishment. “A review of that period shows allegations and sometimes convictions (and/or charges dismissed via pretrial intervention, as with Rice) against stars as big as Darryl Strawberry, Jose Canseco and Albert Belle without any action being taken.”

That changed on August 21, 2015 when — in reaction to the NBA’s reaction to the NFL’s change in policy — MLB announced that it too would get tough on domestic assault. In terms of specifics, however, MLB only offered: “The Commissioner will decide on appropriate discipline, with no minimum or maximum penalty under the policy. Players may challenge such decisions to the arbitration panel.”

Two months later, on October 31, police responded to a call at the Maui Four Seasons Resort in the room of Jose Reyes of the Colorado Rockies (formerly of the Mets) and his wife. She told police that Reyes “yanked her off the bed, pushed her, grabbed her throat and shoved her into a sliding glass door that led to the balcony.” She was treated at the scene and taken to a nearby hospital. For his part, Reyes was arrested and placed on paid administrative leave. In May 2016, he received a 51-game suspension. This prompted Kristie Ackert at the New York Daily News to put the penalty in relative terms — namely, compared to the 80-game suspension for the use of performance-enhancing drugs:

[W]hile Reyes’ case should serve as an example of how seriously MLB is taking domestic violence, the league instead sent the message that threatening violence and putting your hands on another human being is less serious than testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug.

It’s the wrong message. It should be at least 81 games.

Ultimate Fighting Championship: Immediate Dismissal

Like with every other sport listed here, the UFC more or less turned a blind eye to fighters involved in domestic violence incidents pre-Ray Rice. But in fairness, they’ve taken the toughest stance since. Case in point: In October 2016, UFC fighter Michael Graves was involved in a domestic violence dispute and immediately suspended from the UFC. After an investigation concluded earlier this year, Graves was permanently dismissed from the UFC. Per an official statement:

In November 2016, welterweight Michael Graves was removed from his UFC bout following his arrest in Fulton County, Florida. As a potential violation of the UFC Fighter Conduct Policy, the UFC organization temporarily barred Graves from competition pending the completion of a third-party investigation. Based on the findings of this thorough review and investigation, UFC has advised Graves that he has been released from his contract effective immediately.

UFC requires all athletes to act in an ethical and responsible manner, as mandated by the UFC Fighter Conduct Policy. UFC holds its athletes to the highest standard and will continue to take appropriate action if and when warranted.

The irony, of course, is rich: The most nascent and arguably most violent sport listed here has so far provided the harshest punishment (if even just once).