Arrest for Domestic Violence Can Seriously Impair an Athlete's Career

We would love for our heroes to be perfect!  Fans tend to view all sports personalities as either heroes or villains, team players or prima donnas, honest guys or thugs.  The sporting landscape is littered with such combinations: Lance Armstrong/Floyd Landis, Mohammad Ali/Mike Tyson, Payton Manning/Lawrence Taylor, Michael Jordan/Alan Iverson.  Any of those named conjure immediate images and thoughts of great admiration or disdain despite the fact that all of them are or were top-performers in their respective sports.  
Nothing can be more damaging to an athlete’s personal life, on-field career, or ability to earn money through endorsements as becoming a defendant to a charge of domestic violence.  The list of athletes so charged is long and disappointing.  One of the most recent sports heroes to garner negative publicity is former MLB slugger Manny Ramirez.  Ramirez was arrested on September 12, 2011 after his spouse told police that Ramirez had slapped her in the face, causing injury to her head.  Ramirez has been formally charged and was scheduled to be arraigned for trial on October 14th.  Ramirez’s recent unfortunate episode represents the prototypical professional sports related domestic violence incident: male athlete committing a violent act against a wife or girlfriend.  Since retiring, Ramirez has recently expressed an interest to return to baseball.  Ramirez whose skills have diminished with age, may lose all hope of in returning pending the outcome of this trial.

The news and internet are replete with stories of athletes abusing women.  A 2010 article published in Harvard’s Journal of Sports & Entertainment Law reports that while athletes are affected by the same social ills as the rest of the general population; drunk driving, traffic-stops and repeat offenses - surprisingly, the arrest rate for athletes, specifically NFL players, is lower than that of the general population.  It seems, however, that athletes and non-athletes are equally charged with domestic violence.  Because of athletes’ elevated social status and the intense public interest in their off-field lives, it is all the more important that sports agents protect their clients by providing necessary education and tools to avoid DV incidents, and at the very least, effectively dealing with any such incident that does arise. 

The Illinois Domestic Violence Act of 1986 provides for both civil and criminal remedies for violation of its provisions.  The purpose of the Domestic Violence Act is to acknowledge and deal with the serious nature of acts of domestic violence; it was designed to be construed liberally to that end.  Part of the strength of the Domestic Violence Act are its many definitions (“Abuse”, “Family or household members”, “Harassment”, and “Interference with personal liberty”) that go beyond the traditional notions of physical abuse between people.

“Abuse”, as defined by the statute, means physical abuse, harassment, intimidation of a dependent, and interference with personal liberty.  The key point here is that the Domestic Violence Act’s broad definitions include a wide range of actions that qualify as domestic violence. 

“Harassment” is defined as knowing conduct that is not necessary to accomplish a purpose that is reasonable under the circumstances.  The following acts establish a rebuttable presumption of harassment: creating a disturbance at the petitioner’s place of employment; repeatedly telephoning the petitioner’s employment, home or residence; repeatedly following the petitioner about in a public place; repeatedly keeping the petitioner under surveillance by remaining present; or threatening physical force, confinement or restraint on one or more occasions. 

While the actual acts of domestic violence are not always severe (slap in the face or minor bruises), they can sometimes be disastrous.  Case in point: Steve McNair.  While the details of the 2009 murder-suicide are a bit opaque, the relevant facts are quite clear.  McNair, married with four children, was having a romantic tryst with a 20-year-old waitress, who demonstrated jealous tendencies, such as parking outside of McNair’s home and stalking other women involved in McNair’s life (see definition of harassment above).  The affair ended with the 20-year-old Sahel Kazemi purchasing a gun and murdering McNair in his pied-à-terre prior to killing herself. 

Although the McNair case is an extreme example, it is important for athletes and their agents to realize that domestic violence takes many forms and affects men and women equally, both as perpetrators and victims.  Understanding what types of acts are prohibited under the Domestic Violence Act and the protections that an athlete or his family member may obtain may prevent physical abuse from ever occurring.

For athletes, education and prevention is key.  Due to public criticisms for a perceived leniency related to acts of domestic violence by athletes, league commissioners, team owners and coaches are cracking down on players who commit such violent acts by inspiring suspensions and fines.  Additionally, corporate endorsers are quick to pull deals from athletes associated with run-ins with the law and other types of negative publicity.  In order for athletes to command top endorsement dollars and maximize their earning potential, they have to construct and maintain a commercially viable image in which domestic violence incidents have no place. 

Being aware of what constitutes domestic violence, what remedies are available, how agents communicate that information to their athletes, and taking legal action swiftly when appropriate may be the difference between that athlete being known and compensated as “the Hero” or “the Thug.”

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