As Our Pro Sports Leagues Treat Violence Against Women, So Too Might We?

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You could be forgiven if ESPN's Tuesday night broadcast of the New York Knicks–Houston Rockets preseason epic escaped your purview — indeed if this event had your full and undivided attention, you may be a candidate for certain high-level scientific studies. But setting aside the James Harden and Kristaps Porzingis in exhibition mode of it all, a fascinating and potentially important moment occurred when ESPN color man, former Knicks and Rockets coach, and longtime NBA gadabout Jeff Van Gundy spoke out forcefully against the league's domestic violence policy. An inspired turn, it was the rhetorical equivalent of a small man grabbing onto a very large man's leg and daring him to shake him off.

Van Gundy's spiel comes on the heels of a disturbing spate of NBA stories that include a civil suit alleging that the Knicks guard Derrick Rose participated in the gang rape of a former girlfriend, and the bafflingly insufficient eight-game suspension handed out to the Sacramento Kings Darren Collison after pleading guilty to assaulting his wife. Appealing to the better angels of NBA commissioner Adam Silver, and making reference to the league's traditional place in the vanguard of social-progressiveness, Van Gundy urged the NBA to adopt something resembling a zero-tolerance policy. "My one suggestion going forward is, any felony committed against a woman should be a full-season suspension," Van Gundy offered, "and on the second one, you're gone."

Well, yeah. Even in our fractious, Rashomon-on-the-web culture, there is something potent about a high-profile individual rolling the dice with a little real talk at a moment when saying nothing is by far the easier course of action. Van Gundy's statement had the unsettling properties of the best editorializing: By suggesting rational ramifications for violent transgression, he gives us pause to wonder how in the world the existing consequences are so inadequate to the task of either justice or determent.

It is no revelation that college and professional sports have been leading from the rear on these issues for decades. Words are insufficient to characterize the moral bankruptcy of an NFL willing to sideline star players for full seasons for the act of healing their bodies with marijuana, only to take half and quarter measures with the likes of Ray Rice and Greg Hardy. The recent series of assault-related scandals at Baylor University is evidence of a prevailing climate amongst major programs to handle instances of shocking exploitation by flamboyantly not giving one single shit.

I will resist the urge to enumerate and re-litigate the countless instances of teams, leagues, investigators, attorneys, and prosecutors working in determined tandem to prevent a modicum of justice from being served to the victims of rogue actors who just happen to fall under the protective umbrella of big business. I will not remove and unpack the giant box marked "Roger Goodall's Hypocrisies," because we all know the man is more feckless and untouchable then a late Roman emperor, and I'll just end up tearing my own head off and kicking it down the street in frustration. I will, however, take special exception at those thin-skinned babies in the sports media who throw a shop-wrecking hissy fit every time they sense that the "fun distraction" of sports is somehow being "overshadowed" or "invaded" by some variant of identity politics which they undoubtedly characterize as political-correctness.

These fucking people. Here's the deal, Iron Mike Ditka: As much as you huff and growl and carry on like the capacious asshole you always have been, you still don't get to partition off the multibillion dollar world of high-profile athletics as a comfortable bastion for your reactionary fantasies. Not with its endless tentacles in business, technology, and advertising. Not with its global superstars, who are every bit the avatars of our collective values and identity as any elected official. This notion that sports, activism, and social-change somehow don't mix is not only magnificently ignorant, it is hugely counterproductive. 

So back to that little guy who once rode Zo's leg for dear life. Van Gundy's remarks take place against a political environment that tests our collective attitudes toward women in what are possibly the starkest terms since the Suffragette movement of 1920. On the one hand, you have the single most qualified individual ever to run for the White House. On the other you have a man who regards women as objects of scorn, eroticism, or puzzlement, but never seriousness. From the NBA to the White House we are redefining attitudes to one or the other extreme. In his remarks Tuesday, Van Gundy lighted a path toward reason by modestly proposing that our sporting institutions cease treating moral catastrophes like uniform violations. Right this very minute, he seemed to be saying, "We can decide what we want our league to be." And maybe he wasn't just talking about the league.