Senators demanded Tuesday that professional sports leagues crack down on domestic violence, saying that they must leverage their positions as institutions of power in American life to set a better example.
At a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee, the senators said they were particularly disgusted by the case of Ray Rice, the running back who just won an appeal of a suspension for knocking out his fiancée in a casino elevator.
“The bright light of public attention needs to be turned on at a very high wattage on a problem that exists in the shadows, in a very dark and scary place,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
She said that the NFL, the NBA, the NHL and Major League Baseball “have probably more power and influence in our country than maybe any other institutions that I can think of.”
Representatives of the leagues said they were working to improve. Troy Vincent, an executive vice president of the NFL and a former player, fought back tears as he described watching helplessly as a child while his mother was beaten.
“We saw how she struggled to seek help, and find the courage to say no more,” said Vincent, who has spoken of his past before. “The fear and complexities accompanying this violence remain very real in my life today.”
Of the NFL, he said: “We’ve made mistakes. We’ve been humbled. We accept the criticism we’ve received, and we’re committed to being part of the solution. We will get this right.”
The hearing came hours after NBC’s TODAY aired an interview in which Rice said he wanted a second chance in the NFL.
Other representatives from the leagues and their players unions described steps they have taken recently, including beefing up training for players, adding trained counselors, establishing commissions and coming down hard on violators.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. and the committee chairman, cited six examples of NBA players who were charged with domestic violence but not convicted, and were not punished by the league.
Kathleen Behrens, the NBA’s top official for social responsibility, said that domestic violence is “under-reported, under-prosecuted and under-sentenced.” She said the league was committed to investigating violence claims on its own.
“We’re not just relying on the criminal justice system going forward,” she said.
Union representatives stressed the goal of preventing and punishing domestic violence, but they said the process must be fair.
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., excoriated the NFL players union for celebrating an arbitrator’s decision last week to reinstate Rice.
The arbitrator found that the NFL had abused its discretion by lengthening Rice’s punishment when video of the attack became public. The union called it a victory for due process and transparency.
“This is not about due process,” Heller said. “This is about helping to stop a terrible problem in society. Wives, mothers, sisters, daughters and friends are being beaten.”
A committee aide said that the league commissioners had been invited but were not attending. Some cited scheduling conflicts.