Month: October 2013

The NFL and Domestic Violence

Image
This piece was published by The Good Men Project on October 8, 2013.  You can view it here.

Pittsburgh is a town that loves its sports. This is apparent on every flashing marquee, on the side of every bus, and in every restaurant—chain and independent alike. One night last spring, I caught sight of this love in the lobby of Patron, a Mexican restaurant in Pittsburgh’s North Hills suburbs, and lost myself in the autographed pictures hanging floor to ceiling of all the Steelers who have eaten there.

 

But I was also introduced to another kind of history. “This place was all over the news a few years ago,” my cousin told me as we slid into our booth. “Remember Cedrick Wilson? Receiver for the Steelers? He came in here and hit his ex-girlfriend in the face.”

 

A different story than the one told by those smiling photographs, for sure. Shortly after the assault, owner Dan Rooney issued the following statement: “The Steelers do not condone violence of any kind, especially against women,” and Wilson was cut from the team. Likewise, Steelers running back Chris Rainey was cut hours after chasing down his girlfriend and slapping her during an altercation in January 2013.

 

Other teams have demonstrated similar no tolerance policies—the Dolphins had no problem terminating Chad Johnson following domestic battery charges in 2012, and the Bengals’ release of Ahmad Brooks after he punched a woman in 2008 was highly speculated to be fueled by the team’s efforts “to rehabilitate their image.”

 

But consistency is key, and not all athletes and teams have been playing by the same set of rules. Ahmad Brooks was picked up by the 49ers shortly after his release by the Bengals—only to go on and assault a teammate this past July. Following a domestic abuse charge in 2011, Green Bay linebacker Erik Walden received little more than a slap on the wrist—a mere one-game suspension.

 

Linebacker James Harrison continued to play for the Steelers after agreeing to enter counseling following assault charges in 2008, sparking an underdog-overcoming-adversity spin that journalists like Harold Abend have given the story. Abend portrays Harrison as a sympathetic figure despite his long history of violent outbursts—“The bumps and bruises he has sustained on the gridiron…pale in comparison to what he has endured off the field”—as though James Harrison is a victim of unfortunate circumstance and not a habitual instigator responsible for his own conduct.

 

What do all of these violent incidents add up to? Two things.

 

1) Public outrage does not seem to amass until NFL violence escalates. We were shocked and horrified by the accusations surrounding Ray Lewis and, more recently, Aaron Hernandez. We were more than happy to weigh in on the Ben Rothlisberger rape allegations. And of course, there was the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide. Murder and suicide are horrific, but do not negate the terror living women (and men) experience at the hands of abusers.

 

One in four women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime. Normalizing and downplaying these incidents (It’s the couple’s private business; we don’t know the whole story) must end. Period.

 

2) The NFL has garnered a reputation for being THE professional sports organization with THE domestic violence problem. Sure, domestic violence appears in other sports (NBA star Jason Kidd’s assault charges; wrestler Chris Benoit’s double murder and suicide), but given that 21 of 32 NFL teams carried at least one player with domestic violence or assault charges on their rosters during the 2012 season, the NFL is in a unique position, to, as Churchill once advised, “see the opportunity in every difficulty.”

 

 

Individual players are already seizing the opportunity to speak out. Cornerback Brandon Carr joined former Cowboys Emmitt Smith and Roger Staubach at a “Men Against Abuse” rally in Dallas last March. Ravens linebacker Chris Canty told USA TODAY Sports that “we’ve got to stop being silent about this,” after speaking at an April domestic violence awareness seminar in Baltimore. Canty’s teammate, defensive back Chris Johnson, is using his professional platform to share a very personal story: his sister, Jennifer, was shot and killed by her estranged boyfriend in December 2011. After taking in his sister’s two daughters to raise them as his own, Johnson now travels to various women’s shelters to promote awareness. And check out Giants quarterback Eli Manning’s participation alongside other professional athletes in the White House’s “1 is 2 Many” PSA, in case you missed it last summer.

 

 

As wonderful and necessary as this activism is, we need more of an impact from the NFL as a whole. I propose the following:

 

1) Tighten up the policy. The NFL must revise their current Personal Conduct Policy so that it is clear and consistent regarding domestic violence and assault matters. All teams in the league should be required to uphold this policy regardless of which current or potential players wind up in the hot seat—no high school athletic favoritism here. Change.org has already put the wheels in motion to petition Roger Goodell.

 

2) Start an official campaign. The NFL currently has no official campaign (Play 60) or initiative (breast cancer; going green) specifically targeting domestic violence. A league-wide campaign would unite the good work that many players are doing individually and inspire more activism in American communities. October is upon us, which means pink on hats and uniforms all over the field in support of breast cancer awareness. Wouldn’t it be great to see some purple for domestic violence awareness, too?

 

3) Partner up. Innumerable organizations have devoted themselves to raising domestic violence awareness. A partnership with the NFL could generate more volunteers, funding, and publicity, as it has for over 35 years with the United Way. Here are just a few of the groups and charities dedicated to domestic violence and related issues:

 

  • National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV)
  • Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN)
  • Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused (CASA, Inc.)
  • Futures Without Violence (FWV)
  • Men Against Domestic Violence (DVS)

 

 

I didn’t know about Cedrick Wilson’s assault until I sat down to eat at the very scene of the crime. I didn’t know about James Harrison’s violent history until after we won the Super Bowl in 2009—after I donned his jersey and cheered my team to victory.

 

There is a picture of 21-year-old me sitting on a dorm room futon, pulling on the number 92. A friend snapped it moments after Harrison’s glorious 100-yard touchdown return, and reviewing the excitement on my face makes me long for the days of a more successful franchise. When I finally read up on the linebacker’s off-the-field reputation weeks after the big game, I felt palpable disappointment, the chest drop every fan feels when our biggest heroes let us down. I wanted to support my Steelers, but I did not want to support an abuser.

 

Being both a woman and an owner of Ben Rothlisberger and James Harrison jerseys has created a strange and troubling kind of cognitive dissonance for me, something that I haven’t fully figured out how to deal with. Perhaps the NFL could help. By doing its part to tackle the problem of domestic violence, the NFL would be taking a crucial step toward getting everyone’s heads back in the game.

The Truth About Being (And Having) An Only Child

Image
This piece was published by Role/Reboot on October 3, 2013.  You can view it here.

A few years ago I found myself sitting across the kitchen table from the mother of a friend, while he and his sister were occupied downstairs. “Do you have any siblings?” she asked me.

“I’m an only child,” I said.

“Mmm.” She smiled knowingly. “Spoiled.”

This wasn’t the first time I’d been slapped with the “spoiled only child” label, and I’m willing to bet it won’t be the last. Despite the ever-growing number of only child families and the overwhelming amount of social changes we’ve undergone over the past hundred years—more women opting for higher education, pursuing careers outside the home, waiting until later in life for marriage and children—the same stigmas remain: Only children are selfish, attention-seeking, precocious, and socially maladjusted. 

We owe much of this thinking to child psychologist G. Stanley Hall—whose studies on only children in the late 1800s led him to conclude that “being an only child is a disease in itself”—while ignoring more recent studies proving otherwise.

Contrary to Dr. Hall’s assertion, I had a great experience growing up an only. And when I posed the discussion to other only children, I found that their experiences were also generally positive, fulfilling, and dare I say it, fun! Here’s why:

1. We’re creative, because we had to be.

If you’re looking for a little ingenuity on the playground or in the sandbox, only children make great playmates. I was raised on the quintessential fad toys of the ‘90s—Grand Champions horses, TY Beanie Babies, Littlest Pet Shop—and believe you me, every animal had a name, motive, and intricate backstory. My mind was free to roam uninterrupted over character traits, tones of voice, dialogue, and even “set design” until Grand Champions looked and sounded more like an equine version of Lord of the Rings. I found even more enjoyment in combining my epic sagas with those of other only children—my friend Rob and I were able to fuse our imaginations, resources, and combined hours of solitary rehearsal to become the Joel and Ethan Coen of Beanie Babies. 

2. We know that being alone isn’t the same as being lonely.

Chanel Dubofsky wrote on the distinction between loneliness and “alone time.” The truth is that solitude does not necessarily equate to alienation or boredom. “Being an only child,” my friend Amy noted, “definitely helped feed my imagination and made me very willing and able to entertain myself.” Another friend, Devin, appreciates that she became “used to a very quiet, controlled environment”—key to losing ourselves in books, movies, playtime, or simple daydreaming. “I had so many characters…that kept me company,” she said, “that it hardly seemed lonely to me.”

3. We’re highly self-aware and motivated.

As Katharine Coldiron mentioned recently in her article on only children, being highly self-aware can have its pitfalls—overanalyzing words, actions, and what others may think; occasionally missing the forest for the trees—but overthinking can also pay off in careers and hobbies where attention to detail is crucial. As a teacher, for instance, it is vital that I “tune in” to the vibe of a classroom and pick up on signals that an individual student may need help.   

A lot of the only children I heard from also reported feeling highly motivated. Devin attributes her “great work ethic, high [personal] expectations and low expectations of others” to her upbringing, in great part because less children means more available resources and more attention. Because my parents weren’t stretched as thin and had the time to develop an active interest in my schoolwork and hobbies, I was able to utilize all resources in order to succeed.

4. We can hang with the grown-ups. 

Only children are often called “little adults” because our household contact is limited to our parents, who may talk to us like adults at an early age and regularly take us to “adult” gatherings. “The running joke was that I was 6 going on 30,” my friend Stephanie reported, and I felt the same way growing up. Even though I had plenty of friends from school, church, and daycare, being a part of adult environments helped me understand that it is possible to have friends of all ages. To this day I’ve worked to maintain relationships with former teachers, bosses, and co-workers who have influenced me for the better, and often find myself seeking out friendships regardless of age difference.

5. We’re extremely loyal friends.

I’ve established some of the most nurturing and unwavering friendships with other only children, quite possibly because we’ve had to “create” sibling-like relationships for ourselves. Twenty years of history and companionship with two fellow singletons who grew up in my neighborhood—and yes, we’ve certainly fought like siblings—has led the three of us to feel like family. “Honestly, I know most of my friends better than most of my family,” my friend Rob says.

Only children develop a tremendous appreciation for loyalty, especially during the bad times. Having no siblings to lean on during my parents’ divorce, I was relieved that I could turn to my cousins who had gone through the same situation for comfort and advice. We went from having virtually no relationship to being thick as thieves in the span of a few short years, and today there is nothing we wouldn’t do for one another. Overall, growing up without siblings has caused me to fiercely value trust in my personal relationships, and on the flip side, feel especially let down when that trust is betrayed. 

6. Yes, we’re real families too.

Shortly after giving birth, my mom was met with a barrage of “when are you going to have the second?” questions, to which she responded that she was happy with one. A co-worker took this opportunity to inform her that “you’re not a real family until you have two children.” 

“Real families” come in all shapes and sizes. Some have one child. Some have several. Some are childless or childfree. Some children are raised by single parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, or older siblings. And sometimes, making a “real family” work for you means striving for balance. By limiting herself to one child, my mom was able to enjoy both the experience of taking time off work to raise me and finding her identity in a career once I had reached a more independent age.

A recent New York Times op-ed written by the mother of an only child (and an only child herself) concludes with a familiar idea: “Most people say they have their first child for themselves and the second to benefit their first…But if children aren’t inherently worse off without siblings,” she asks, “who is best served by this kind of thinking?” In other words, if the happiest women are mothers of one child, and the only children I spoke with didn’t turn out to be veritable circus freaks, then what’s the harm in letting our creative, loyal, self-aware flags fly?