I don’t pretend to know Janay Rice’s story. And I don’t claim to know everything there is to know about her marriage to Ray Rice—or what was going on in her head and in her heart when she hit “share” on the Instagram message that went public Tuesday morning.
I do, however, understand her plea for privacy, and I know what it feels like to be with a man who thinks it’s OK to disrespect you, to strip you of your humanity with a threatening word and a fast hand, to scare you into silence—not just out of fear for your own safety but also out of concern for those in your circle. And seeing this chapter of Janay Rice’s life play out on our Facebook walls and Twitter feeds like some grotesque play for the social network age reminds me of what my life could have been if I’d stayed with my college boyfriend, a young man who slowly progressed from being emotionally manipulative to being scarily violent, who thought nothing of hitting me in the face with a phone during an argument or putting his hands around my throat because I wanted to leave an event after he’d humiliated me in front of a crowd.
And I’d be lying if I said Janay Rice’s post didn’t make me worried for her safety.
By now the world knows that after TMZ released video Monday showing Ray Rice punching then-fiancee Janay (née Palmer) in the face, the Baltimore Ravens released the running back from his contract and the National Football League subsequently suspended him indefinitely. And that Janay Rice took to Instagram to chastise the media, saying that “to take something away from the man I love that he has worked his ass off for all his life just to gain ratings is a [sic] horrific,” going on to say that she and her husband will continue to “grow and show the world what real love is.”
In my case, my boyfriend’s fingerprints were still on my neck when I made my decision to ignore his apologies and save my own life—but what if I hadn’t had a moment of clarity that forced me to move on? What if we’d already had a child together, as Janay and Ray do, and my resources and support system were hopelessly tied to him? What if I’d known that women who leave their abusers are 75 percent more likely to be killed by them? What if I’d convinced myself that I loved him more than I loved myself?
My ex wasn’t a college athlete, but our situation illustrates, for me, the urgent need for the programs—long overdue—that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell vowed last week to put in place to educate prospective players long before draft day. As part of his announced policy—which was spurred by the public response to his poor handling of Ray Rice’s crime—the league will expand its domestic violence and sexual assault education programming for men participating in youth, high school and college football.
The hope is that these young men will learn early lessons in how to grow healthy relationships and resolve conflicts using nonviolent means. Although only about 2,560 men can claim official player status in the NFL at the beginning of each preseason, more than a million boys and men participate in football programs every year. If these programs are implemented out of true concern for the women these young men will encounter—and not just with an eye to the optics of scandal—this holistic education could go a long way toward addressing the statistics that haunt college campuses and locker rooms nationwide.
According to the youth advocacy group Break the Cycle, 43 percent of college women have experienced abusive or violent behavior from men they were involved with on campus. And about those locker rooms: Rice wasn’t the only one putting his hands on his partner. FiveThirtyEight, which analyzed NFL arrest data, reports that domestic violence arrests account for 48 percent of all violent-crime arrests among NFL players, compared with 21 percent in the general population.
So I’m not second-guessing Janay Rice if she continues to stand by her husband. But I’m shaking my head at the conditions that perpetuate violent behavior and the hard choices it forces. And I hope our digital pontificating eventually persuades both domestic violence victims and their abusers to get help, and leads all of us to place greater value on women’s lives.
Kenrya Rankin Naasel is an award-winning author and editorial consultant whose writing has appeared in the New York Times, Fast Company and Redbook. Her latest book is Bet on Black: African-American Women Celebrate Fatherhood in the Age of Barack Obama.