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The NBA, Domestic Violence, and the Need For Change

The NBA's current approach to domestic violence is no longer tenable. It's time for the league to take definitive action and prioritize the safety and well-being of women



I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine about former NFL wide receiver Josh Gordon. Gordon may best be remembered for having tremendous physical abilities (he once led the league in receiving yards in his second NFL season, good for 20th most yards in a season all-time), but also as someone that never fulfilled his potential because of multiple suspensions that kept him out of the league. The interesting thing about Gordon was that his suspensions were for marijuana violations that resulted in year long suspensions, something that likely would not happen today due to more widespread acceptance of the medicinal properties of the marijuana plant. 


Long suspensions for drug abuse and possession is not a new concept in either the NFL or NBA, some of the longest suspensions ever doled out by the leagues are for drug related offenses. It is particularly jarring when you consider that the penalties for domestic violence are often punished with much less severity by comparison. This disparity has been shown recently in the NBA, where Charlotte Hornets forward Miles Bridges has served a 30 game suspension for felony assault of his ex-girlfriend (and mother of his two children). For a league that has invested so heavily in the growth of women’s basketball through the WNBA, it is disappointing to see the way that the league has not prioritized domestic violence issues with its players. As more situations arise (like that of Oklahoma City’s Josh Giddey), it is becoming clear that sexual and domestic abuse cases are not being taken seriously by the NBA, and they absolutely should be. 


Combating Drug Abuse



The NBA in the 1970s was a much different league than the one we know today. The league was airing NBA Finals games on tape delay and had a growing drug problem. It is estimated that in that era, 75% of the players in the league had consumed cocaine, with another 10% of players smoked or freebased the drug. This drug problem continued into the 1980s, which has been chronicled by stories like that of Spencer Haywood. The issue became even more pronounced when promising Maryland star Len Bias was found to have died of an overdose shortly after being drafted by the Boston Celtics. The league realized that they were dealing with a major issue and started to police the use of drugs with more urgency. 


There are a handful of players in the league's history that have been banned permanently, with a bulk of them occurring in the 1950s and 60s for point shaving and betting scandals. Since 1986, the NBA has permanently banned six players and all have been for drug related offenses, the most recent being the suspension of OJ Mayo in 2016. The fines and penalties have gotten more strict from the league in this regard, and has led to various efforts and programs centered on drug awareness for younger generations


The league's stance on drug abuse has shown that it can be serious about an issue and lead the charge to make a difference in poor communities that are ravaged by narcotics. It has severely punished players for violating these policies and made it clear that the NBA was a league where drugs would not be tolerated. And yet, this same league that saw an issue that it felt was damaging the reputation of the league, has looked at the rising number of domestic violence and sexual assault cases against its players and not given it the same amount of energy. This is especially troubling when one considers that the NBA is trying to attract women to be fans of the league, but they do not seem to respect women enough to have a stronger stance against domestic violence. 


Sending the Wrong Message



It is estimated that 38% of the NBA’s viewership and fan base today is women. This is a significant portion of the audience for a league that is only growing as the years go by. Alienating that large of a chunk of viewers would be foolish, and yet the leagues lack of seriousness around domestic violence is doing just that. The aforementioned Miles Bridges received a 30 game suspension for his actions, which is the longest suspension a player has served for a domestic violence/abuse infraction. In 2016, point guard Darren Collinson was suspended only 8 games after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor domestic battery charge. That is not even 10% of an NBA season. Suspensions like these send the wrong message to both women who consume NBA games and the leagues players. That message is that violence against women isn’t that big of a deal. 


One in every four women in the United States has experienced domestic violence. There are over 167 million women in the US, meaning that roughly 41 million women have experienced domestic violence in some capacity. So when they see players that they root for making the mistake of committing a heinous act, only to not be punished for it, it sends a message of apathy. This sort of action tells a woman watching the NBA that the league ultimately doesn’t want to sacrifice player availability for validating experiences that millions of women experience every day in America. By not taking it as seriously as it does issues around drug abuse, performance enhancing drugs, and violence in the arenas it is indicative that the league doesn’t feel that this is an issue. 


There is a dynamic to be considered when it comes to the glorification of our athletes and the shine that is crafted with their reputations. The image of an athlete, especially one with tremendous talent, is carefully constructed and they are created as godlike figures that should be emulated. The flaw in this is that all athletes are of course human beings, and human beings make mistakes and commit acts that some of us could never fathom. By not taking an act as heinous as domestic violence and sexual abuse seriously, the NBA is prioritizing the image and idea of a player and neglecting the people that are hurt along the way. 


More than anything the NBA is a league of superstars and egos. Larger than life characters that we emulate through moves that they make on the court, fashion statements they make off the court, and whose names we wear on the back of memorabilia. With the weight of the stardom that the NBA affords to many players, there should be consequences for engaging in actions that go against being a productive member of society. Ultimately, the league needs to change the way it views these cases when they involve its players as a serious matter as opposed to a nuisance getting in the way of profitability. 


Changing the Outlook



Many people view the United States as a country and society that offers second chances, in most cases. The idea that you can make a mistake and then start anew is a concept that is embedded in the identity of America. And in the case of NBA players that are found guilty of domestic violence accusations, it stands to reason that a player should not be banned for life if found guilty, but also should receive more than a “slap on the wrist”. Any suspension from the league for a domestic violence case should offer a one year ban, to send a message to players that the conduct that it expects from them is one that extends off the court. 


While one year may seem too severe to some and perhaps not severe enough to others, what it does is set a precedent that a year of a players career will be the price to pay for transgressions that are unbecoming of a role model and public figure. But beyond the suspension length, the NBA itself needs to promote advocacy to shed light on this issue. Domestic violence, and specifically violence against women is a problem that is present in today’s world and is sadly frequently swept under the rug. When women have advocated for a voice on this topic, they have often been silenced or told that the problem was not that severe. 


Noa Dalzell, who writes for Celtics Blog, wrote a piece in September 2023 highlighting the various instances where NBA players were not disciplined adequately for domestic violence charges and accusations. The comments on this post paint a picture that has become all too common in the conversation about violence against women: apathy and acceptance of the way things are. Women are often painted as cons when it comes to accusations against our favorite players, with sentiments like “she just wants to trap him” or “looking for a payday” becoming commonplace. If the NBA were to take the issue of violence against women more seriously through campaigns similar to ones it has done to combat drug abuse, then there will be more legitimacy to the issue in the eyes of NBA fans. 


With that first step in place, a player that commits these acts can then be entered into counseling and intervention programs that can show them the error of their ways in an effort to make them more accountable citizens in society, thereby showing them that they are not above the law just because they play in the NBA. The league has gone far too long in being on the sidelines when it comes to violence against women as it pertains to its players. It is time for that to change, to admit that this is a real problem for the league just as drug abuse was in the 1970s. And beyond that, to take action that should have been taken years ago.




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