Readers be advised: This video above contains recently released graphic footage of Ray Rice, former NFL athlete and Baltimore Ravens running back, knocking out his wife!

A collaborative work by Bryanna Fissori and Luca Rajabi.

The image of a professional athlete is often larger than the image of the sport itself. Many young adults and children’s’ first impressions of a sport come from the idolization of an athlete that’s gained tremendous popularity. Corporate sponsors and even politicians have come to rely on these “role models” as safe platforms to enhance their image in the eyes of the public. These athletes are constantly under a moral or ethical microscope, and even the slightest perceived misbehavior can have an exponential negative impact on the perception of the athlete and the sport, sponsors or other public figures they represent.

The simple truth is, professional athletes are public figures. Although not credited with the day to day responsibilities of a government official, they do have the same behavioral standards placed on them. Some question whether the expectations placed on these athletes is fair, but it’s a futile argument to make when so many parties have already placed their confidence in a name. Relatively minor infractions like the misuse of performance enhancing substances to gain a competitive advantage have had tremendous impact on sports all across the world. Starting first with public outrage, then rippling into the eyes and ears of government officials, finally resulting in massive pressure for administrative reform. We’ve seen this many times in many different sports.

But what happens when the infractions are more significant? What happens when the behavior becomes so grotesque that it violates the foundations of confidence in even the most basic examples of an athlete’s defining characteristics?

  • Speed
  • Skill
  • Endurance
  • Strength

Without a doubt, one of the most defining core attributes of an athlete is their demonstration of strength. The very word (strength) is used to describe superior qualities of everything from an athlete’s physical power to the performance in their sport. Strength goes beyond athletics, it’s a word with deeply seeded cultural significance. The concept of superiority is one that has been implicated in some of the most tragic historical atrocities. Yet, it is an attribute we tie directly to some of our most revered public figures.

There is no act more destructive to the reputation of an athlete than that of the exhibition of an abusive power or misuse of their strengths. Recent attention has been placed squarely on a common yet, until now, under appreciated misuse of physical strength: Domestic Violence. And pubic outrage over allegations and convictions of domestic violence implicating some of the biggest stars in sports have pressured associations, leagues, commissions and even promotions to “do more” to deter athletes from such aberrant behavior.

The NFL Sets New Standards

Implementation of the National Football League’s new penalties for players accused of domestic violence offenses re-opens the discussion about moral standards for professional athletes. Combat sports athletes such as MMA fighters, boxers and wrestlers are especially sensitive to the topic of domestic violence as it has a greater tendency to reflect poorly on sports that are already considered “violent” and sometimes controversial.


NFL players will now face a six-game suspension for their first offense of domestic violence and banishment of at least one year for the second offense. League policy also states that the players do not have to be convicted of the crime to be punished.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent a letter to the league at the end of August stating that domestic violence and sexual assault “have no place in the NFL and are unacceptable in any way, under any circumstances.” 

Goodell also outlined plans to require NFL league personnel to “undergo comprehensive training to help them understand and identify risk factors associated with domestic violence and sexual assault.”

These changes were implemented after the NFL was heavily ridiculed for only suspending Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice two games after being accused of assaulting his fiancée. Rice has since been removed front the roster.

Combat Sports and Domestic Violence

Floyd Mayweather and Shantel Jackson
Floyd Mayweather and Shantel Jackson

The penalty implementation comes in precise timing with the recent lawsuit filed against boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. for domestic violence against his ex-fiancee Shantel Jackson. If convicted, this will be Mayweather’s fifth unique conviction for the same crime. Despite the recent case which was filed on September 4, Mayweather will still square up for a re-match against Marcos Maidana on September 13.

Thiago Silva back in the UFC
Thiago Silva back in the UFC

MMA featherweight Jon Koppenhaver, better known as “War Machine,” was released from the UFC last month after a widely publicized incident with his porn star girlfriend Christy Mack. Though the UFC has been applauded for his release from the organization, they recently re-signed Thiago Silva, who has been suspended for the last year for failing a drug test. Silva was also arrested in February of this year for three separate but related incidents that lead to him going toe to toe with a SWAT team outside of a training gym in Florida. It all started with Silva putting a gun to his now ex-wife’s mouth during an argument about extra-marital affairs. He then left and sent her a text stating that he was going to hire someone to kill her and then have his girlfriend move in. To add more drama to the situation, Silva then went to a gym where his wife and her boyfriend were training together. Yes, she was also cheating. Silva pulled a gun on her to force her boyfriend to come outside. He threatened to shoot up the gym as well. In the midst of this movie-esc frenzy, the SWAT team showed up and took Silva down. Six months later, he is back on the UFC roster.

Other recent incidents in the last five years include:
  • Josh Grispi – Assaulted his wife and turned a pitbull on her, causing a broken wrist and concussion. Grispi threatened that he would find pleasure in her slow, painful death. Drugs and weapons were found at his residence. (Released from UFC roster)
  • Will Chope – Discharged from Air Force after repeatedly assaulting wife (Released from UFC roster)
  • Jeremy Stephens –Assaulted a man outside a bar, wife of victim also injured (Still on UFC roster)
  • Abel Nazario Trujillo – Pleaded guilty twice to domestic abuse against the mother of his child (Still on UFC roster)
  • Brett Rogers – Punched wife repeatedly, strangled, knocked a tooth out. Daughters were home (Released from Strikeforce roster)
  • Frank Trigg- Plead guilty to battery and domestic violence accusations from then wife (already retired)

This is far from a complete list of MMA fighter-related domestic violence cases and does not include the plethora that come from professional boxing and wrestling athletes.

Public Appearances

The NFL is taking a serious stance on the domestic violence issue for a number of reasons, one of them being the preservation of image. Football is a widely accepted sport for family viewing across all demographics and it is important to preserve the image of the organization as one that unites a sense of sportsmanship and team pride. Having players on their rosters that are tainted as abusers makes them significantly less appealing to a large population.

Combat sports have a much more difficult mountain to climb in order to overcome the stigma of violence because of the nature of the sport. Though boxing is generally accepted and wrestling has remained consistently popular, MMA is still very controversial in family settings. With the gaining popularity of women in the sport, it is even more imperative to maintain a clean image for combat sports. As an increasing number of female viewers are converted to the sport, they bring with them the next generation of fans. No wife, girlfriend or daughter is going to be supportive of a fighter accused of abuse.

Potential Implementation

Should all professional athletic organizations follow the lead of the NFL? The controversy is likely to stem from the fact that the alleged abuser need not be convicted in order to be penalized, meaning that their discretion will have to be used to determine if an offense was committed. The lack of conviction requirement is not inappropriate given that the court system can take a long time to react to the accusation and the fact that some charges are dropped despite their validity.

The important question is: who would enforce penalties in combat sports? Boxing commissions and athletic commissions could, in theory, take this responsibility. Individual promotions could also do it, though that would likely leave inconsistencies which would allow competitors to jump from one promotion to another.

Moral Standards

Another important concept to address is the standard which we place on athletes. Should there be a higher moral code for professional athletes, than let’s say, someone who works at the bank and is charged with domestic violence? Would they be expected to be suspended from work? Not likely. Do athletes have a moral obligation to be roll models?