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The growing trend of pro athletes and domestic violence

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There was a time when we read about sports stars almost exclusively on the sports pages. But now, we are just as likely to learn as much about certain athletes’ crime statistics in the metro section as a 300-yard passing game in the sports section.

Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention remembers Ray Rice. For those just returning from a 12-month vacation in Uzbekistan, the Baltimore Ravens’ running back punched his fiancée in the face on an elevator on March 27, 2014.

The subsequent two-game suspension levied against Rice fueled such a firestorm for its leniency, that the National Football League ultimately suspended him indefinitely. Late last year, Rice won reinstatement and is now trying to sign with another team.

Another professional football player named Ray was at the center of another, yet far less known, incident involving a prominent Floridian and domestic violence. Ray McDonald, a former Florida Gator and San Francisco 49ers defensive end, was accused of physical violence on his fiancée.

This incident occurred in late August as the talk still centered on Rice and the NFL’s botched response, as well as the opening of the pro football season. Another high-profile incident, the child abuse case involving Minnesota Vikings’ superstar Adrian Peterson, broke in early September.

McDonald and his alleged misdeeds seemed to blend into the background. No charges were ever filed and McDonald received no sanctions from the NFL.

As the 49ers’ 2014 season was in its surprising death spiral, the news broke that the San Jose, Calif., Police Department was investigating McDonald for sexual assault. The 49ers cut McDonald loose the same day. McDonald denied the accusations and filed a lawsuit for defamation.

Teams of any sport, anxious to shore up deficiencies, will sometimes make bizarre decisions. The Chicago Bears, with a 2014 defense that would make George Halas do a 360 in his grave, “took a chance” and signed McDonald for the 2015 season. Halas’s grandson, Bears President George McCaskey, made the call to sign McDonald.

It didn’t take long for McDonald to make them regret it. On May 25, he was again arrested in California for domestic violence and child endangerment.

The Bears immediately cut McDonald, but the story does not end there. He was again arrested on May 27 for violating a restraining order.

While it is true McDonald has not been charged with any crime, protests of innocence have a better chance to ring true if there are no subsequent incidents. Four calls to police within one calendar year is a problem. Does the name O.J. Simpson ring a bell?

The Rice case sent the NFL on a multi-step journey to recover its lofty standing with the public. Unfortunately, each step seemed to be an exercise in chasing their tail.

Domestic violence is serious business. It’s bad enough for Joe Schmoe to slap or punch his wife or significant other, but when the accused include hulking professional athletes, the potential for serious injury increases.

To be fair, most athletes do not abuse women or children, but it is probably far more prevalent than imagined. The professional leagues can, and must, do more.

The NFL, for instance, could highlight those serving their fellow man (and woman). A great example is Tallahassee native William Gay. Gay, who played college football at Louisville, is a defensive back with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

He is an anti-domestic violence activist and one of the loudest voices in his adopted community in Pennsylvania. More like him are needed in the spotlight.

Domestic violence is a crime. The recent incidents are unfortunate, but any good coming from them involves the greater awareness they create.

The Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence does a tremendous job for the victims (survivors) of this crime. They, and the 42 certified domestic violence shelters around Florida, save lives and make a difference for survivors. Plenty of information is contained on their web site at www.fcadv.org.

Most importantly, addressing domestic violence can save lives, but a fringe benefit would be helping return more coverage of our sports stars to the sports pages where they belong.

Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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