Awareness, #Awareness, and Ray Rice

September 18, 2014

By Jonny Auping via Classical

There is awareness and there is #Awareness.

One is a state of being and understanding, and the other is not quite that — something amorphous and both bigger and smaller, and centered around something quite different. The first knows and comprehends the impact of a dread disease; the second dumps an ice bucket on its head, watches the Likes pile up on Facebook, and doesn’t trouble itself much with the rest.

Neither, honestly, is a bad thing. For all its problems with proportion, there is a sort of genius to #Awareness, at least to the extent that it harnesses the need of corporations and individuals to brand themselves — itself a fundamentally self-centered thing — and redirects that narcissism for good. Philanthropy is hard, and branded awareness works.

And so it is that, in October, the NFL will be one giant canvas for the color pink. “A Crucial Catch” is the NFL’s initiative to raise awareness and generate donations towards research aimed at eradicating breast cancer. It is, in the NFL’s words, “focused on the importance of annual screenings, especially for women who are 40 and older” — our mothers, more or less, whom we love.

There will be pink jerseys, wristbands, tote bags, t-shirts and hats. The profit generated by all that pink merchandise will go towards the American Cancer Society, which is good for everyone, and the NFL gets to look both concerned and #aware to demographics that otherwise might not think much of the NFL, by publicizing the initiative on daytime talk shows, magazines and in women’s retail stores. Aligned media outlets will gladly champion the entire thing; civic-minded consumers will still wind up with a pink Adrian Peterson jersey in their closet. Everybody wins.

In October the NFL will be #Pink because it cares about #Women.

In September, NFL fans all over the country are watching a video of an NFL player knocking his fiancée unconscious in an elevator. The NFL’s branding masters naturally don’t know how to turn domestic violence awareness into #DomesticViolenceAwareness and they appear to have no desire to do so.

The NFL suspended Rice a mere two games and claimed to have not seen the most recent — and most damning, most harrowing — footage of Rice striking his now-wife, Janay Palmer. The images depicted in the video footage are not much different than what was suggested in the story the NFL deemed worthy of a two-game suspension, but they are objective images, instead of testimony subject to various biases and expediencies. The result is that, even with Rice out of football indefinitely, and perhaps forever, everyone that cares to do so can convincingly condemn the NFL for basically condoning physical abuse against women. The NFL missed an obvious opportunity to make an example out of Rice and show the world that the most popular — and possibly the most identifiably masculine — organization in America considers any act of domestic violence intolerable.

But even while the rest of the world is busy criticizing the NFL, the only potential good that could come from this despicable act and its attendant ugliness is still being lost by the wayside. Where is the actual awareness?

A few hours after the most recent video of Rice surfaced on TMZ I Googled the words “Domestic violence Ray Rice.” The first page of results included links to stories by USA Today, the New York Times, the Washington Post, TMZ, SB Nation, the Boston Globe, Yahoo, ESPN and the Huffington Post.

None of them provided information about the little-understood national epidemic domestic violence. None of them provided statistics highlighting how extremely common domestic abuse is all over America — especially, but not restricted to, in low-income areas. None of them provided a link to a website with more information, suggestions about how to help others, or how one can escape an abusive relationship.

All of those media outlets, for what it’s worth, attached the video of Janay Palmer being punched in the face, before her attacker dragged her unconscious body out of an elevator like a roller suitcase.  Journalistic policy aside, making known that resources for domestic violence are out there seems the right thing to do when you’re generating traffic using a video of a woman being beaten.

It’s not that the conversation surrounding this on ESPN or cable news or wherever is so absurdly poor so much as it is that the conversation does not include anything about what this is really about. For all the stupid things we will hear people say about this on television, the most surprising would be a commentator saying, to camera, “If you want to learn more about this serious problem…”

Anyone, everyone with a moral compass knows that the content of that video is wrong. Once that’s established it somehow becomes just another story to be debated like all the others in sports. Fans easily remark — sometimes in faux anger that shields indifference– on how the NFL suspended a player two games for this and another player 16 games for smoking marijuana as if shortening Josh Gordon’s widely reviled year-long suspension, would somehow make any of this situation right.

If Johnny Manziel is late for Tuesday’s practice, Herm Edwards and Mark Schlereth will go back and forth on SportsCenter over what disciplinary actions the Cleveland Browns should take. The same personalities have different conversations about Ray Rice, with a slightly different inflection in their voice, and nothing is accomplished; they are ultimately unqualified to talk about the issue, but have to do their part to fill air-time. It’s hard to be mad at the absurdity of the situation, we’ve all done our part to create it with the demand for constant sports coverage.

But domestic violence is a problem outside of sports that overlaps with it to a discomfiting degree. The last 12 seconds of that SportsCenter segment could illustrate that overlap by consisting of the moderator reiterating that it is a real issue and reminding everyone where additional information can be found.

Perhaps there is the sense that actual awareness — as opposed to the branded, significantly safer #awareness — of this is more than this conversation is built to handle.

Which makes sense, as this is not a safe or abstracted problem. Some 24 people — mostly women — per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States. That is approximately 4,500 people over the course of an NFL game.

Psychological effects like Battered Women’s Syndrome can create denial and guilt, leading to a cycle of abuse; the psychological trauma of abuse is arguably as damaging as the physical. Women all over the country live everyday in fear that the person they live with will harm them or their children.

The problem with branded awareness isn’t its potential for success. The problem is its limited range. There are certain things no one wants to brand. #DomesticViolenceAwareness might never happen, in the NFL or anywhere else. It is not safe or pleasant or comfortable to talk about; it is intimate and uncomfortable and brutal and entirely too close for comfort. No one is dumping ice water on their head for the mother of two who doesn’t know where to turn when her partner attacks her in front of her children. No one is selling us #awareness, but that doesn’t mean we can’t just open our eyes.

If you or anyone you know is affected by domestic violence the number for the National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233. More information and resources can be found at TheHotline.org. The site also provides information on how to support and comfort those experiencing domestic violence, how to donate or volunteer and paths to safety.

Photo: Charlie Lyons-Pardue