NBA Needs to Change Its Stance on Domestic Violence in Post-Ray Rice WorldSeptember 26, 2014
Before blossoming into a borderline All-Star and a nightly triple-double threat, Lance Stephenson earned a more dubious distinction: domestic violence suspect.
In August 2010, Stephenson, then 19 years old, was accused of pushing his girlfriend down a flight of stairs in her Brooklyn apartment building. According to police reports at the time, Stephenson then grabbed her and hit her head against the bottom step.
The woman sustained head, back and neck injuries. Stephenson was charged with third-degree assault.
The case was dropped six months later. And Stephenson, then a rookie for the Indiana Pacers, quietly resumed his career—without ever being suspended, fined or otherwise disciplined by the NBA.
There was nothing surprising about the league's inaction.
The NBA has long abided by a basic American principle of jurisprudence: that everyone is innocent until proven guilty; that the legal process must take its course before the league renders judgment. No conviction? No suspension.
This may sound prudent and rational, but it is no longer adequate in a post-Ray Rice world.
The Rice videotape brought the graphic horror of domestic abuse into every living room. The bungling of the Rice case exposed the limits of the criminal justice system and the fecklessness of NFL leadership, and now the question becomes: What will the NBA do when its turn comes?
That moment has arrived far too quickly. On Thursday, police in Michigan arrested Jeff Taylor of the Charlotte Hornets and charged him with domestic assault.
Commissioner Adam Silver this week promised "a fresh look" at the NBA's approach to domestic violence. Michele Roberts, the new executive director of the players union, said she would push for more education and preventive measures.
Yet neither of them addressed the league's greatest blind spot: discipline. The NBA won't punish its players until the courts do. As a result, NBA players are almost never suspended or fined for domestic violence—a stance that has left the league looking passive and ineffectual.
"To wait for the conviction in these cases is basically to decide to do nothing," said Tania Tetlow, a law professor and director of Tulane's domestic violence center.
The fact is, the criminal justice system fails miserably when it comes to domestic violence. Abusers go free. Fearful victims refuse to testify. Cases rarely go to trial. Prosecutors file charges in just three of every 10 cases, according to the FBI.
Even a videotape doesn't guarantee a conviction—Rice had his criminal charges dropped, in exchange for entering counseling.
And we know, too, that a dismissal of charges is not the same as a declaration of innocence—only a concession that the case was too difficult to prove.
The system is broken, and waiting for a court verdict "is a decision to defer to that broken system," said Tetlow, who previously worked as a federal prosecutor. That is, sadly, the NBA's de facto policy.
Every year, a player or two is charged with domestic violence. Every time, the NBA defers to the courts and ends up doing nothing.
Consider this stunning fact: No NBA player has been suspended for domestic violence since Ron Artest in 2007, and before that Eddie Griffin in 2004.
In the last three years alone, nine players have been charged with some form of domestic assault: Greg Oden (most recently with Miami), Ty Lawson (Denver), Jared Sullinger (Boston), Jordan Hill (then with Houston), James Johnson (then with Memphis), DeAndre Liggins (then with Oklahoma City), Terrence Williams (then with Boston), Dante Cunningham (then with Minnesota) and Taylor.
None have been disciplined by the league—essentially because none of them have been convicted. Some cases are pending. Some were dropped. But dismissal is not proof of innocence.
In trumpeting "due process," the NBA has, intentionally or not, given itself a free pass.
Even when a player has pleaded no contest—as Hill did, to charges that he assaulted his girlfriend in 2012—the league has done nothing.
The NBA proudly points to its policy of a minimum 10-game suspension for any violent felony conviction. Yet Hill evaded discipline by getting his charge reduced to a misdemeanor as part of his plea deal.
The Sullinger case provides an interesting counterpoint. Sullinger was accused of assault and battery after an incident with his girlfriend in September 2013. The case was dismissed when the woman refused to testify, as often happens. The Celtics suspended Sullinger for one game anyway, declaring that he had "failed to meet the high expectations we have for all Celtics employees."
"We're trying to send a message," Celtics president Danny Ainge told reporters at the time, "not just to Jared, but the rest of our players—that their behavior has an effect on all of us."
In the NBA, it is usually the commissioner's office, not the individual teams, that metes out punishment in legal matters. Ainge took a bolder and more proactive stance and made an important statement: It's a player's conduct that matters, not whether a prosecutor can build an airtight case.
Silver should follow Ainge's example. If the NBA can reasonably conclude that something happened, it can and must act. The NBA has no obligation to prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt—only that the player's conduct was wrongful and detrimental to the league.
And the NBA has the ability to conduct, within limits, its own investigation, through its security division, which is stocked with retired police detectives and FBI agents. Those agents can interview witnesses—including the alleged victim—and review police reports, photos of injuries and any other available evidence.
"It's not often that there are videotapes," Tetlow said, "but when you have a witness, covered in injuries, telling you what happened, that's as much evidence as we have in most criminal trials. And it's absolutely enough evidence to convict in these cases. The difference is, the criminal justice system historically has not prioritized or particularly cared about these cases. So you can be complicit in that."
Will someone file a false charge? Will a wife or girlfriend lie to police as a means of extortion or retaliation? Perhaps. But it is unreasonable—indeed, dangerous and irresponsible—to presume that every dropped case was the result of a false charge.
Nine (counting Taylor) NBA players have been accused of domestic violence in the last three years. Were all of those women lying? Or is it more likely that some (or several) of these players were, in fact, guilty of assault but evaded punishment because of a broken justice system and a league office that abdicated its responsibility?
"I think they have failed," Tetlow said of the NBA. "By looking the other way in cases of domestic violence, and rape in particular, they've really sent a signal, whether they intended to or not, that this is not a big deal."
There will be some resistance to change, an impulse to protect players' current rights, and any new policy will require union participation. So far, Roberts has stressed increased education over increased discipline.
"I do think people need to stop worrying about punishment to the exclusion of prevention," Roberts told Bleacher Report. She added, "In my view, what we should be doing is figuring out some ways to prevent [violence], as opposed to figuring out who can be tougher in the event it happens."
These are complicated issues, to be sure. The NBA can't rush to judgment for the sake of public relations; it cannot act on accusations alone. Players' civil rights must be respected. But so must the rights and welfare of the women in their lives, and it's impossible to argue that the NBA has sufficiently done so.
In his brief time as commissioner, Silver has proved more progressive than his mentor, David Stern, and less beholden to long-held practices. One can only hope that his "fresh look" will result in a more principled and muscular stand against domestic violence.
The NBA can do better. We shouldn't need a videotape.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.