Sports writers still struggle covering violence against women

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Domestic and sexual violence are notoriously challenging for journalists, especially for sports writers. Those challenges were on full display earlier this month in a Boston Globe story about New England Sports Network television analyst and former Boston Red Sox player Steve Lyons, who was arrested on charges including domestic battery and intimidation of witnesses (all since dismissed) as a result of a January incident at his California home.

The lede of Nick Cafardo’s initial story in the Globe describes the charge as something Lyons had been “dealing with.” Sports Illustrated’s Khadrice Rollins echoed that language, writing, “Boston Red Sox analyst Steve Lyons has been missing NESN broadcasts recently to deal with a domestic battery charge in California.”

As Baseball Prospectus writer Meg Rowley said on Twitter about the language used by SI: You “‘deal’ with flat tires, snow storms, [and] leaky roofs,” and, in this case, “irritatingly passive descriptions of alleged abusers.” This wording makes the case sound like an inconvenience for Lyons, something he had to wait out and get over with so he could return to Boston.

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The story seemed to excuse someone charged in an incident that resulted in injuries to his girlfriend’s face, according to a police report acquired by the Globe. According to the Globe’s follow-up reporting, police lost photos they had taken at the scene to show injuries to Lyons’s girlfriend, photos a defense attorney claimed showed no noticeable injuries. The girlfriend told police Lyons did not strike her. A judge opted to dismiss the charges.

Journalists at the Globe did not respond to multiple requests via email to discuss its story, and when I called, I was told the editor who worked on the piece was out of the office and not available for comment before my deadline.

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This is an industry-wide issue that goes beyond sports media. In a particularly egregious example, after MLB player Jose Reyes was suspended last season under the league’s domestic violence policy for allegedly grabbing his wife by the throat and slamming her into a sliding glass door, a USA Today story by Bob Nightengale refashioned Reyes as the victim, noting, “The man forfeited his dignity. He will forfeit about $7 million. He even lost his job,” and adding it was “to [Reyes’s] credit” that he was participating with the MLB investigation.

Just last week, ESPN ran a headline about NFL player Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension for domestic violence that read, “Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott suspended six games for conduct.”

 

Sports writers have come a long way in how they write about allegations of domestic or sexual violence against players. (Mostly) gone are the days of including quotes from teammates and coaches about what a “great guy” the alleged abuser is, or soundbites about how “everyone makes mistakes,” completely ignoring that domestic violence is generally part of a broader pattern of behavior. In fact, by the time the police or public become aware of the abuse, it’s usually been going on for quite a long time.

The growing number of women covering sports has helped. As Hall of Fame baseball writer Claire Smith said when I interviewed her for Vogue earlier this summer, “If athletes or coaches want to say those things [about players accused of violence being ‘good guys’ who make mistakes] . . . we’re allowed to call them on the way they say them.”

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But that doesn’t mean most baseball writers know how to cover the topic. That’s an issue because, like it or not, baseball—like many other professional sports—has a violence-against-women problem, and those who write about the sport are going to have to cover domestic or sexual violence accusations.

Balanced reporting doesn’t mean assuming the alleged perpetrator’s guilt, but it does mean challenging flawed assumptions and empty quotes from defense attorneys. It means pushing back against pervasive cultural beliefs that put the onus for abuse on the victims and always give the benefit of the doubt to people accused of perpetrating violence.

There is more we can learn from the Globe story: Another major mistake is that the piece quotes Lyons’s lawyer, Richard A. Hutton, apparently without contacting the alleged victim or her attorney (or mentioning whether such an interview was attempted). In the Globe piece, Hutton is quoted as saying that Lyons’s girlfriend, “told authorities within 36 hours of the incident that he had never struck her or touched her in an offensive way.” The piece ends with Hutton saying, “Steve and [his girlfriend] have been together since the incident.” There is no counterpoint from an opposing counsel or court-appointed advocate.

This kind of reporting is not “neutral.” It treats the defense attorney’s words as facts, when it’s the defense attorney’s job to discredit the victim. Also, it uses the police report as the victim’s “side,” but attempts to discredit the report with statements from Lyons’s attorney. Was no one working on the case in the prosecutor’s office contacted to speak on behalf of the alleged victim? The story also gives the defense attorney the last word. Do you see the problem here? Lyons has an advocate speaking on his behalf in the story, but his girlfriend does not. The story is reported from the perpetrator’s standpoint, and the victim gets no perspective. By failing to provide adequate context for the victim’s point of view, the Globe’s story fails as a piece of journalism.

Not only is it basic journalism to contact counsel for both sides in a criminal case (and mention that it was attempted, or clarify why it didn’t happen), part of our job as journalists is to make sure we’re providing the appropriate context and explanations of the topics we cover. Yahoo Sports managed to do this, citing Cafardo’s reporting and adding this commentary:

“We should emphasize that most of this information comes directly from Lyons’ attorney, so it’s going to be heavily slanted in his favor. We have not heard from the other side yet, and may not, considering Lyons’ girlfriend is not a public figure. What Hutton says paints Lyons as innocent, but that’s also his job.”

But all of this coverage fails by not including context on domestic violence incidents or helping readers better understand the dynamics at play in these situations.

Providing this context means that, after quoting Lyons’s attorney, the writer should offer a quote from a domestic violence advocate to explain that it’s common for victims to drop charges or rescind allegations. The reasons for this include fear, threats, or promises from the abuser to change and make it up to them — promises victims believe because they want so desperately for them to be true, because the person who hurts them is also the person they love.

Balanced reporting would also mean providing statistics or an expert quote about how common it is for victims to stay with their abusers, about how a victim will leave a relationship an average of seven times before she departs for good, how the reasons for staying are complicated and nuanced and valid.

Balanced reporting doesn’t mean assuming the alleged perpetrator’s guilt, but it does mean challenging flawed assumptions and empty quotes from defense attorneys. It means pushing back against pervasive cultural beliefs that put the onus for abuse on the victims and always give the benefit of the doubt to people accused of perpetrating violence.

Lyons’s girlfriend deserves the benefit of the doubt from journalists, who should seek out experts who can speak to her side of the issue, instead of ensuring the voice that already holds all the power keeps it. The scales are already tipped far in Lyons’s favor as a man and a public figure.

I’m asking every one of us to do better when we cover these kinds of stories. People’s lives literally depend on it.

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer and baseball enthusiast living in Boston. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, Vogue, espnW, and The Washington Post. You can follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.