Domestic violence in sports – guilty until proven innocent?

November 7, 2014


By Ryan Monty – Thompson Rivers University 3L JD Student

There has been a rash of domestic violence charges springing up in professional sports leagues across North American in recent months and, even as a casual sports observer, you would have to have had your head in the sand not to notice. It all started with Baltimore Raven’s running back Ray Rice and the controversy surrounding the National Football League’s reaction to that incident. The punishment went from 2 games to an indefinite period of time after a video surfaced showing Rice physically assaulting his soon-to-be wife in an elevator. The public outrage was palpable and forced the hand of the league to reconsider its original suspension.

This set the precedent for subsequent situations involving criminal charges and athletes. The Minnesota Vikings suspended all-star running back Adrian Peterson indefinitely after charges were laid against him for physically disciplining his child, and most recently, Slava Voynov, a defenseman for the Los Angeles Kings, was suspended indefinitely by the National Hockey league mere hours after being arrested for domestic violence, all with the aim of curtailing any public backlash directed at the league or team.

This brings up the alarming fact that the standard of proof in the public eye is substantially lower than the blindfolded Lady Justice. In our criminal justice system a person charged with a crime of this nature needs to have his or her guilt proven beyond a reasonable doubt with the onus on the Crown/prosecution to prove it. However, the leagues and the teams of these players are now faced with the reality that public reaction will be so intense that anything less than an all out suspension is unacceptable, essentially shifting the idiom of “innocent until proven guilty” to “guilty until proven innocent” in the public sphere.

I am not going to defend the actions of someone like Rice, who clearly deserved what was coming to him, especially since the video was definitive on what role he played in the situation. The problem I have is with the escalading reactionary nature of the sports world to any type of criminal charges before all the facts are in. Anyone can make allegations to police and it is up our justice system to determine if those allegations are true. The public though doesn’t seem to have a problem with vilifying an athlete and tarnishing his reputation at the mere mention of pending charges.

Dante Cunningham, a professional basketball player is currently without a contract from any National Basketball Association team after his then-girlfriend called the police claiming he assaulted her. The charges were later dropped and it was proven that she had fabricated the events in question, yet Dante is still feeling the consequences of these false allegations because no team is willing to take on the player due to the possible public and financial burden of letting him join their team. The onus is now placed on him to prove to the public and any suitor that his value outweighs his detriment.

Teams have every right to sign whom they want for whatever reason. They, along with the league, also hold the right to suspend any of their players and that is clear in the respective Collective Bargaining agreements of each league. The NHL, for example, has a clause that stipulates a team can suspend a player if “the failure to suspend the player during this period would create a substantial risk of material harm to the legitimate interests and/or reputation of the league.”

The extent to which the legitimate interests or reputation team or league would suffer is essentially determined by the public reaction to the alleged incident. And the public reaction is sometimes – if not often – based on an intemperate, incomplete and inaccurate understanding of the facts. I am not here to suggest a new test or regime on how to suspend players charged with criminal offences but I am advocating for due process and the restraint to judge each situation based on its merits instead of blindly suspending any athlete that comes into contact with any legal troubles, which is where I fear we are at now and won’t easily return from.


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