A survivor’s take on the NFL’s domestic violence problem

Trigger warning: domestic violence, corporal punishment

Today’s post comes from a writer who asked to only be identified by her first name, Gloria. While some folks may have moved on from the rash of disturbing stories of domestic violence that have come out of the NFL of late, many survivors remain stunned and unable to enjoy one of America’s favorite past-times. Here Gloria talks candidly about the triggers that run deep — especially around corporal punishment.

It remains to be seen how the NFL — and particularly Commissioner Roger Goodell — will make any positive gains from the spate of scandals that still plague them. While they have started a series of PSAs for a campaign called NO MORE which, interestingly combines awareness about domestic violence and sexual assault (which I’m for as they are often linked), they have yet to make good on their promise to donate money to a domestic violence hotline.

Perhaps the most promising thing to come out of the NFL scandals is the outpouring of outrage — not just by the usual suspects (like feminist bloggers and organizations), but by the average football fan and the sports media. After all, the very stereotype of the average football fan is of a man (although half of all football fans are women — myself included) and despite significant inroads by female athletes and female sports journalists, sports is still considered to be largely a man’s domain. For every Stephen A. Smith, still stuck in ignorant victim-blaming thinking, there are a lot more Bill Simmons’ on air and in the armchairs.

Still, the stories often missing are from survivors like myself and like Gloria. I salute Gloria’s bravery for sharing this story.

My husband and I watch a lot of ESPN together. In all the years I’ve tolerated the rundown of SportsCenter, I’ve never needed a trigger warning. Until the last few weeks. Less with Ray Rice, but when they read what Adrian Peterson said about whipping his son, I flashed back to being a child and had to plug my ears and put my head under a pillow. My dad would say exactly what Peterson said about beating his children. “I love them.” “It’s not abuse.” “This is what my dad did to me, and I turned out okay.”

But just because my dad loved me, didn’t mean it wasn’t abuse and didn’t mean it didn’t confuse me about what love meant. The Rice story and the Peterson story are deeply connected in my mind, and not just because both are NFL players. Children who are abused grow up to be adults who are victims in abusive relationships. As a child, you equate love and security with the control (and sometimes violence) of an abuser. I never doubted that my father loved me, and so I believed that his violent anger and his control over my life were extensions of that love. The extensive beatings, with a belt, yardstick, switch, or hand—for what were often minor infractions or simply the result of being a kid with energy—only taught me to be fearful and secretive. My siblings and I walked on eggshells around my parents, keeping secrets between us, never telling our parents about numerous things. Many times we all would be punished for an infraction that only of us committed. I once told my dad that he was abusing us, in a rare moment of speaking out against him, and he told me that he wasn’t. He had never burned me, he told me, he always fed me, and I had clothes. Those things constituted abuse, not giving me a black eye and yanking me by my hair.

I didn’t start dating until late in college, and as a senior met a guy who I became very serious with. He would get angry with me for things that were entirely out of my control, but I wanted to please him and just thought that his anger was an expression of his love. He would point out how much he sacrificed for me, never recognizing I had sacrificed equally to make our long-distance relationship work. He would push me away just to want me back, treating my feelings like a yo-yo, which he controlled expertly. After an incredibly traumatic event in my life, he broke up with me, telling me he couldn’t handle supporting me emotionally, never mind that I had been there through all of his emotional struggles.

About a year after that, I moved to the same city where he was and we renewed our relationship, but he never wanted to make it official. He asked me out on a date, and then throughout the date told me all the things I needed to apologize for. At this point, I’d been through serious counseling and was better able to recognize the control he was trying to exert. I tried to draw lines, but they often wavered between friends and romantic partners. As I pulled away from him, he would try and draw me back in. He wanted me to travel with him and stay overnight, and I said no. He cried, tried to hold me, and told me that I was meant for him. I pushed him further and further away, only to have him email me and call me, alternating between telling me how horrible I was and how much he loved me and needed me back. He went so far as to tell me his mom said we belonged together and that I should come back to him. He gave me flowers (something he had done only once in the time we were officially dating), threw rocks at my window, and begged me to come back to him. Eventually I cut off contact, feeling angry and manipulated. I still feel angry when I think about how much time I let him control my life and my feelings, because I thought we were in love.

I learned in counseling that this is common. Many children of abusive or controlling parents choose partners that have those same traits because they want to fix what happened to them in childhood. It took me a long time to sort that out within myself and have the recognition that a partner who tried to control me or tear me down wasn’t a healthy or good relationship. I consider myself fortunate that I figured it out and have a husband who isn’t abusive or controlling.

Unfortunately, not everyone is able to do that. Too often family and friends don’t know what is going on (especially with emotional abuse), or the person protects the abuser. Too many times women (and a few men) don’t know that they are in an abusive relationship and convince themselves that it’s okay, that it’s love, and that they need to work a little harder to fix the problems. Creating awareness helps immensely. Family and friends showing support also helps. An abuser works by turning you against your family and friends, when those people express dislike for him it strengthens his case that they’re not worth the time.

I was able to break the cycle of abuse by finding people in my life that showed me true, nurturing, healthy love. A loving church family, combined with a group of unwavering friends, helped me see that I was okay without my ex-boyfriend—in fact, I was better. I don’t have children, but if I do, I plan to get “booster” counseling to make sure I’ve worked through the right issues to not abuse my children. Some of the scars of my childhood will be with me forever, but the abuse stops with me.

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