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A New Role for Athletes to Play

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This past September 2011, former MLB player Manny Ramirez was arrested in his home on charges of battery, after allegedly slapping his wife so hard her head was slammed into the headboard of the couple's bed. Ramirez's arrest is another in what seems to be a long line of professional athletes who have been charged with domestic violence. Many professional athletes contend that the public's perception of them as particularly prone to acts of domestic violence is skewed by the constant media attention their celebrity attracts. In an effort to combat this image, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, in 2007, strengthened his league's Personal Conduct Policy to include longer suspensions and larger fines for violators. More importantly, he added a section to the policy declaring that NFL players will be held to a higher standard than the rest of society. If the Commissioner believes a player to be guilty of tarnishing the NFL's image, the league will act regardless of the judicial system's progress in the case.

Although it has not been included in the new guidelines, there has been a push for the implementation of a "three strikes, you're out" structure to the conduct policy. Much of the support for this addition has come from the players themselves, which suggests that those who have no record of domestic violence are unhappy with the reputation a few bad apples have given the entire league. If this is so, what other measures can players take to distance themselves from the stigma of the abusive athlete? Simply favoring a policy that condemns violence towards women is not enough. Athletes, like everyone else, must actively speak out against those that resort to such behavior. Whether they like it or not, athletes are role models. Their actions and words influence the millions who look up to them and desire to emulate them -- they would not earn millions of dollars in endorsement deals if it were otherwise. Rather than wasting time debating whether certain consequences of their fame are actually fair, professional athletes need to recognize that they are provided with an opportunity few others could ever have. Due to their celebrity, professional athletes have the ability to educate and influence those struggling to combat a more deserved image problem: big-time college athletic programs and their student-athletes.

The constant reports of domestic violence and sexual assault incidents involving college athletes are not just a product of relentless media coverage. In the most comprehensive study to date on the subject, researchers found that although male athletes comprise only 3.3% of the population, they commit 19% of the sexual assaults committed by college students in the U.S. Even more troubling, male athletes are responsible for 35% of the domestic violence crimes committed by students. NCAA president Mark Emmert has finally begun to address the issue by exploring the possibility of instituting a policy that would encourage schools to take a tougher stance on athletes charged with sexual assault or domestic violence. However, the sad truth is that as long as there is no uniform code of off-field conduct for all NCAA athletes, incentives will remain for individual programs to mete out lighter punishments to offending players in an attempt to maintain an edge over their competition.

Nevertheless, some question whether it is the NCAA's place to legislate punishment for transgressions that happen off the field. In an article for ESPN, Dana O'Neil asks,

"[W]hat can the NCAA do? Every college or university has a different judicial system set up for its students, with different punishments. If the NCAA were to legislate punishment for athletes, it would basically be usurping the college's power for one specific group of the population."

Interestingly, the NCAA is perfectly comfortable punishing student-athletes for selling game memorabilia, or revoking a student-athlete's eligibility for talking to an agent. Yet it is clear that the NCAA would rather this particular problem be solved by the universities than act themselves. In 2007, Congresswoman Connie Morella (R-Md.) and Congressman Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) proposed legislation calling for a national campaign against domestic violence that would be spearheaded by athletes. While the NCAA did not publicly reject this legislation, it admonished the legislators for how the proposal would portray their athletes. The NCAA was fearful that involving student-athletes, in a campaign against domestic violence, would create an impression that this was to atone for a proclivity to commit such acts in the first place.

Unfortunately, most schools have also done very little on their own to address the issue. Too often, the steps schools have taken are only in an effort to restore a school's reputation after a particularly embarrassing scandal. It took allegations of rape and sexual assault by nine different young women against multiple members of its football team before the University of Colorado established stricter guidelines that addressed the systematic abuse of women by its student-athletes. After college senior Yeardley Love's murder by her abusive boyfriend and fellow lacrosse player in 2010, the University of Virginia engaged its student-athletes in a proactive discussion about domestic violence. Yet according to a former teammate of Love's, there were numerous earlier instances in which female athletes at Virginia were asked to seek private counseling after being assaulted by male athletes, rather than go public with their stories. To make matters worse, their attackers faced little to no punishment.

If the NCAA and its member schools are unwilling to make a concerted effort to address these issues with their amateur athletes themselves -- and would rather put a larger emphasis on damage control than actual prevention -- then shame on them. Something must still be done to address this problem and professional athletes can step up and lead the way. The same celebrity that causes every professional athlete's actions to be observed under the media microscope can be used as a platform to actively campaign against domestic violence, to raise awareness of the problem, and set a positive example for others -- particularly athletes at the college level. College is a learning experience, and much of that learning occurs outside of the classroom. Unfortunately, what many student-athletes have learned is that if they contribute on the field, they will not be held accountable for their actions off of it. Professional athletes and their leagues should collaborate with athletic departments around the country to discuss the difficult subjects of domestic violence and sexual assault. By impressing upon college athletes that violence against women is unacceptable under any circumstances and by preaching accountability, professional athletes can educate those athletes still in school. These athletes can, in turn, become positive role models for the rest of the student body. Student-athletes are the "big men on campus", and with a little guidance from those they look up to, they can begin to act like the types of leaders they ought to be. College athletes would then become part of the solution, rather than a disproportionately large part of a very serious problem.

The upcoming fashion event, "Walk This Way," provides an ideal platform for professional athletes to speak out against domestic and dating violence. Becky's Fund, a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC, has brought together a varied group of professional athletes and corporate and community leaders to bring attention to an overlooked issue. On Wednesday, November 2nd, at the Andrew Mellon Auditorium in Washington, D.C., male professional athletes will walk the Becky's Fund runway to support the anti-domestic violence cause and its survivors. The actions of a few athletes in one night can affect the behavior and values of our youth across the country. Tickets are still available and going fast. To learn more about domestic violence and to purchase your tickets to "Walk This Way," visit www.beckysfund.org.

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