Domestic Abuse In Sport and Tennis
Examples in other sports, the peculiarities and failings of tennis, the way forward
The ATP has announced that their “‘safeguarding report’ is complete and that they will now get to work on a safeguarding strategy relating to all matters of abuse, including domestic violence.” The ATP has also launched an “internal investigation into allegations concerning Alexander Zverev at the ATP Masters 1000 event in Shanghai in 2019.”
The terms ‘domestic abuse policy’ and ‘domestic abuse investigation’ have been written a lot over the past year or so as both fans and players grapple with the reality of having multiple players currently involved with domestic abuse allegations in this sport (Nikoloz Basilashvili was charged with domestic abuse last year, just yesterday police had to separate Nick Kyrgios and his girlfriend during quarantine in Australia, and police also are currently investigating allegations of domestic abuse against Brazilian player Thiago Seyboth Wild). But what those things actually mean in practice and where sports should and shouldn’t step in is still very much a work in progress.
Perhaps the most well known incident of domestic abuse in the NFL, and one of the biggest catalysts for North American sport’s reform on this issue, was the case of Ray Rice. Rice initially got suspended by the NFL in July 2014 for just two games after being charged with third degree aggravated assault for being violent towards the woman who is now his wife (the initial CCTV footage released showed Rice dragging a semi-conscious woman out of an elevator and the court summons stated that Rice had hit her and caused her to lose consciousness). Rice avoided trial by agreeing to a pre-trial intervention program. Over a month later, further CCTV footage was publicly released clearly showing Rice punching the woman in the elevator. Once this subsequent footage was released and on the back of enormous public backlash, Rice’s team, the Baltimore Raven’s, released him from his contract. Rice never found another team willing to sign him and his NFL career was effectively ended as a direct consequence of domestic abuse.
One of the reasons this case caused such outrage at the time was the confusing and inconsistent nature of the NFL’s initial approach, i.e the two game ban graduating into essentially being fired only after the video was made public, as well as the total decision making power resting on NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. The blame for the way this situation was handled fell mostly on the vagueness of the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy at the time. This policy was subsequently overhauled after consultation from 150 experts, including domestic abuse and sexual violence experts. NFL bans for domestic abuse were lengthened to six games for the first incident and a lifetime ban for a second incident. The reworded policy also laid out a less centralised investigative and appeal process, with more clarity:
Any time the league becomes aware of conduct that may violate the policy, it will undertake an investigation conducted by the NFL Special Counsel for Investigations and Conduct, who will oversee the NFL’s investigatory procedures and issue initial discipline for violations of the policy.
In cases also being investigated by law enforcement, the NFL will avoid any interference and may await the outcome of law enforcement proceedings before completing the NFL investigation.
An individual may be put on paid leave if formally charged with a violent crime or sexual assault, or if the NFL investigation finds sufficient credible evidence that it appears a violation of the policy has occurred. Paid leave will last until the completion of the NFL investigation or disposition of a criminal charge.
An individual is subject to discipline under the policy if the person is determined to be guilty of a criminal charge or if the NFL investigation demonstrates the person engaged in conduct prohibited by the policy. “It is not enough to simply avoid being found guilty of a crime. We are all held to a higher standard and must conduct ourselves in a way that is responsible, promotes the values of the NFL, and is lawful.” Violations involving assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault will result in a baseline six-game suspension without pay, with more if aggravating factors are present, such as the use of a weapon or a crime against a child. A second offence will result in banishment from the NFL.
The individual is given notice of proposed discipline and can choose to appeal the decision while remaining on paid leave during the duration of the appeal. In cases of a criminal conviction, the underlying conviction can not be challenged and the court’s judgment and factual findings are binding for the purposes of the NFL disciplinary process.
The appeal process will include a review panel of three outside experts to make recommendations to the Commissioner or his designee on an appeal ruling that will be decided by the Commissioner or his designee.
Critical Response Teams also provide support to assist victims and families, from counselling to medical attention to social and other services. All league and club personnel receive education on these issues on an ongoing basis. And clubs must report any potential violation that comes to their attention immediately whether through law enforcement, a witness, a victim or other source. Failure to report an incident is grounds for disciplinary action.
The most well known NFL player to date to be disciplined for domestic abuse violations, despite not being charged with a crime, is Ezekiel Elliott. Elliot’s case occurred in 2017 after the NFL policy was overhauled and offers quite a lot of information for how sports can deal with situations like this. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, despite still making the final decision on what turned out to be a six game ban for Elliot, was separated from the investigative process and recommendation, and the organisation undertook a detailed, year long investigation. The investigation included testimony from the victim of the abuse, including metadata proving that photos of her bruises were taken and texted the day after she alleges Elliott beat her. A video of Elliot exposing a woman's breasts in public at a St. Patrick's Day parade also factored into the ban decision. Despite much back and forth after Elliot and the NFLPA (the NFL Player’s Association) appealed the ban, the punishment was upheld and served.
Despite this overhauled policy and process, two of the female experts on the NFL Player’s Association’s commission on domestic violence resigned in 2018. Both parted ways stating that the NFL’s efforts had failed to effect any real change or implement meaningful reform in the NFL. There have been lingering concerns that NFL team owners may hold influence over the NFL commissioner, and that that commissioner, who remains the final decision maker, may consciously or subconsciously prioritise business over morality in cases which don’t have an obvious public element to them. It should be noted that both the Rice and Elliot cases featured clear video evidence, seen by millions of fans and sponsors, of at least some of what the players were accused of doing.
After multiple incidents, including the 24-game unpaid suspension of Hornets small forward Jeffery Taylor after he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor domestic violence assault and sentenced to 18 months probation in 2014, the NBA and the NBPA (NBA Player’s Association) created a joint, more codified, policy and process on domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse in 2017:
A policy committee was formed, made up of two people from the NBA, two people from the players’ union, and three independent experts in “domestic violence, sexual assault, and/or child abuse.” Players can reach out to the committee on their own or be sent to it either after a criminal conviction or after the the commissioner Adam Silver has made a “disciplinary determination.”
The committee picks an expert who will evaluate players who have been referred to the committee. That expert develops a “Treatment and Accountability Plan” for the player, including psychological evaluations, other evaluations, or counselling.
The NBA’s investigation may include the use of third party resources including, but not limited to, outside legal counsel, outside investigators, or other individuals with relevant experience or expertise. The NBA will notify the NBPA when it has concluded its investigation and report whether it believes a violation of the Policy has occurred.
The committee will oversee numerous education and training programs.
A confidential hotline will be set up for reporting domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse.
Similar to the NFL, criticism prior to this policy focused around the process resting too heavily on the whims of one single point of failure, i.e NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. But despite creating a clear set of steps for investigation, appeal and punishment, Silver as the Commissioner still holds the final say and all of the perceived decision making clout among teams and players.
MLB and the MLBPA (MLB’s Player Association) instituted its domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse policy in 2015.
A joint policy board, consisting of three experts in the field and two representatives each from the MLBPA and the Commissioner's Office was established. The board is responsible for developing a treatment plan. Players may be required to submit to psychological evaluations, attend counselling sessions, comply with court orders, relocate from a home shared with their partner, limit interactions with their partner, relinquish weapons, and other reasonable directives designed to promote the safety of the player's partner, children, or victims.
Players who fail to comply are subject to discipline from the Commissioner. All information is to be kept confidential.
The Commissioner's Office will investigate all allegations of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse involving members of the baseball community. The Commissioner may place an accused player on paid administrative leave for up to seven days while allegations are investigated. Players may challenge any decision before the arbitration panel.
The Commissioner will decide on appropriate discipline, with no minimum or maximum penalty under the policy. Players may challenge such decisions to the arbitration panel.
All players will be provided education about domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse in both English and Spanish at regular intervals. Resources to players' families -- including referral information, websites, hotline numbers and outreach facilities -- will be made available, along with a confidential 24-hour helpline.
An annual program of community outreach will be developed. It may include public service announcements featuring players, domestic violence awareness days at ballparks and other activities designed to spread awareness on the issues.
There have been a multiple instances where MLB player were punished in accordance with the new policy and investigation despite never being officially charged with that particular offence. Derek Norris, the Ray’s catcher, was suspended on 1st September 2017 for the remainder of that season after a former fiancee accused Norris of physically and verbally assaulting her in 2015. In September 2019, an MLB investigation asserted that New York Yankees pitcher Domingo Germán, while intoxicated, became physically violent toward his girlfriend. The incident was reported to MLB by a member of the Yankees staff, who had been told of the incident by Germán’s girlfriend. Despite law enforcement not being involved in the incident, Germán was suspended for 81-games under the league's domestic violence policy after the MLB investigation. In March 2021 pitcher Sam Dyson was banned for one year after an MLB investigation into alleged abuse of his at-the-time girlfriend Alexis Blackburn. When Blackburn initially contacted the police to report abuse she was told that she ‘sounded like a vindictive girlfriend’ and no probable cause was found. Even more recently, in March 2021, Washington Nationals third baseman Starlin Castro was suspended for 30 games without pay by after an MLB investigation into alleged domestic abuse. Again, no charges were filed. In the above cases, the MLB investigations seem to have filled the hole that traditional criminal justice left gaping.
The NHL is the only one of the four major North American sports without a formal policy addressing domestic abuse, sexual assault and child abuse. It instead runs on a case by case basis decided ultimately by Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly. The process is similar to how the NFL, NBA and MLB operated before overhauling their own policies and processes. The NHL have been criticised for a lack of transparency around how domestic abuse suspensions are handled, especially in the case of Predators forward Austin Watson in 2018. Watson’s 27 game suspension for domestic abuse was reduced to 18 games after the NHLPA (NHL Player’s Association) appealed the decision. An independant arbitrator reduced the suspension but a reason or justification was never given.
Domestic American Leagues vs International and/or Individual Sport
The above, excluding the NHL, are the three main North American examples. Three domestic leagues, with three sets of all powerful Commissioners, three sets of player’s unions/associations to bargain and co-draft the policies, three sets of pretty regular employment contracts and wages, and all three operating in one nation’s legal system (the United States). The ATP in stark contrast is an English organisation, with no formal player union or collective bargaining agreement, working with internationally dispersed players and tournaments, working with players as independent contractors rather than regular employees, with player earnings depending on irregular, performance based prize money rather than regular wages. On top of all that, the ATP is just one part of tennis’ pro structure with the Slams, the WTA and the ITF all owning or controlling other chunks of how this sport is run and regulated. For example if a player was suspended by the ATP there is no guarantee they would also be suspended by Wimbledon.
The differences are extremely stark.
Perhaps then we should look at other individual and/or geographically diverse sports to see whether tennis can take any inspiration from further afield.
Floyd Mayweather Jr was convicted of domestic assault and/or battery multiple times throughout his career and even served jail time. But Mayweather was never suspended from fighting, by any of the sport’s organisations, for his crimes. In fact Mayweather’s career flourished after and amidst the convictions. The boxer was given a $250m contract from Showtime & CBS just months after serving a sixty day jail sentence for one of the domestic violence convictions in 2013. Mayweather even benefited from an hour long special on Showtime in the build up to the fight, that he got to produce himself, which framed that conviction and jail time as a difficult obstacle on his all-important comeback trail.
Rock Newman, a former boxing promoter, noted the difficulties in applying rules and punishments to boxers considering the structure of the sport:
“There’s no central authority in professional boxing. Four sanctioning bodies govern the sport, and they each award their own belts: the World Boxing Council (WBC), the World Boxing Association (WBA), the International Boxing Federation (IBF) and the World Boxing Organization (WBO). Even if one decides to suspend a boxer, there are three others that may decide otherwise, which means there’s going to be a fight somewhere, sanctioned by someone, especially if there’s a lot of money on the line.”
Just last year Gervonta Davis, the WBA’s lightweight champion, was shown choking the mother of his child at a charity basketball game at the University of Miami. Video of the incident was viewed millions of times. Davis was charged with battery but never suspended by any boxing authority.
The exception in boxing was the recent suspension of WBO super-middleweight champion Billy Joe Saunders’ boxing license, in 2020, by the the British Boxing Board of Control, after Saunders released a video that featured him working out on a punch bag while advising men on how to punch their female partners. This is the singular example of a domestic abuse issue in boxing in which a boxer was punished by a sporting organisation without being criminally charged.
The PGA has no formal domestic abuse, sexual assault and child abuse policy. It deals with player conduct issues on a notoriously private, case by case basis.
Riot operated VALORANT esports suspended its player Jay ‘Sinatraa’ Won earlier this year after his girlfriend alleged sexual assault. While the investigation didn’t come to a definitive conclusion, the organization decided to extend the suspension to six months for what it called ‘serious concerns with Jay Won’s conduct during the course of the investigation’:
While the investigation did not come to a definitive conclusion on the underlying allegations, the Competitive Operations team had serious concerns with Sinatraa’s conduct during the course of the investigation. It was determined that on at least two occasions Sinatraa misrepresented certain facts, made false statements, and did not cooperate with the investigation in a way expected of a professional VALORANT esports player. Cooperation in these investigations is of the utmost importance, especially when the nature of the allegations is as serious as sexual assault. This behavior will not be tolerated by VALORANT Esports. Jay “Sinatraa'' Won has violated Rule 8.1 of the VALORANT Global Competition Policy and will be suspended for six months. Furthermore, Won is required to complete professional conduct training prior to being able to return to play.
Sexual assault and domestic abuse are clearly very different offences, but they both tend to fall under ‘safeguarding’ conduct rules in some of the sports mentioned above. This VALORANT/Riot example is also relevant in the context of tennis because the employment status of esports competitors is also less conventional.
Football (Soccer for American readers)
Football is an interesting case because of its relatively decentralised nature, with multiple high profile and powerful domestic leagues and associations, combined with the overarching FIFA and UEFA governing bodies. While football players are similar to the American sports mentioned above, in that they mostly have regular employment contracts with their domestic clubs and are paid stable wages, the Premier League (Englands highest domestic football league), has its own ‘safeguarding policies’ in line with English law.
This policy includes training and instructions for employees listening to accounts of domestic abuse as well as resulting investigative processes:
‘It is important to recognise that it takes extraordinary courage for someone to go through the journey of disclosing abuse. It is therefore important that Staff and Partners respond in accordance with the Premier League’s Safeguarding Policy and training to reduce the risk of increased trauma and/or compromising an investigation.’
Give your full attention to the person disclosing.
Respect pauses and don’t interrupt the person disclosing.
Limit any questioning to the minimum necessary to seek clarification only. When seeking clarification, use the language of the person disclosing to show that it is their experience.
Provide reassurance that the person disclosing is being taken seriously and that they are not to blame.
Engage the person disclosing as far as possible about how best to respond to their safeguarding situation.
Where it is suspected that a crime has been committed, the police should be contacted immediately, and physical, forensic and other evidence must be preserved.
Once the person’s immediate needs have been met, ensure the information is shared with the Premier League’s Safeguarding Team.
Record the information using our Safeguarding Referral Form.
As above, the Premier League has their own dedicated ‘safeguarding team’ for reports of domestic abuse (or other offences) to be made to, as well as documented procedures for contacting the police or other social care organisations and trusts. The Premier League and its clubs have processes in place to carry out their own internal investigations and reviews regardless of police intervention but defer to the criminal justice system when applicable.
Earlier this year Ryan Giggs, former player and manager, was charged with domestic abuse. Giggs is currently out on bail but was immediately replaced as the Welsh national team’s manager by the The Football Association of Wales following the charges. In 2015 Leicester City player Danny Simpson was convicted of assaulting his girlfriend. Simpson was ordered to carry out 300 hours of unpaid work, later reduced to ankle-tagged curfew. His club Leicester City conducted an internal review but never suspended the player. Manchester City suspended Benjamin Mendy in August this year after the defender was charged by police with four counts of rape and one of sexual assault.
There do not seem to be any obvious examples of the Premier League or its clubs investigating and punishing incidents of domestic violence that have not already been referred to the police and charged.
Where does tennis go now?
The educated guess would be that the ATP will create ‘safeguarding’ polices that fall in line with similar, English based, processes of the Premier League and the FA mentioned above. The struggle however, for the ATP and tennis as a whole, will come in its inherent differences to most of the sports listed above. The NFL, MLB, and NBA have done the most work on these problems, have the largest roles outside the criminal justice system, and have the most examples of investigations and punishments for their players. But the ATP cannot just copy the boilerplate of any of the American sports league policies because of the entirely different nature of professional tennis in terms of its geography, fractionalized governance, and employment status of its players. Nor can the ATP look to individual and international sports like boxing or golf for inspiration, as there don’t seem to be any particularly functional examples.
The ATP’s current, rather broad and unspecific, approach to player ‘conduct’ and punishment looks vaguely similar to the NFL’s before that league overhauled its process on the back of the Ray Rice case, or to golf’s private, case-by-case approach:
Current ATP code of conduct:
“A player, or related person, that has at any time behaved in a manner severely damaging to the reputation of the sport may be deemed by virtue of such behaviour to have engaged in conduct contrary to the integrity of the Game of Tennis”
Tennis seems to now be realising however that it needs more specific safeguarding and reform, but the question is how?
As the ATP begin their investigation into the allegations surrounding Alexander Zverev, the organisation, based in England, will be gathering data about a German independant contractor, about an incident that is alleged to have happened in China two years ago, with an alleged victim that is from Russia. Should the ATP come to the conclusion that Zverev deserves punishment, what would happen if they suspend him? Zverev is not paid a steady salary by the ATP as his tour related earnings are instead based around how he performs in tournaments. How then would the ATP suspend the German with or without pay? A docking of his average prize money earnings over the past 12 months? And if the ATP decides that a suspension is warranted, without a specific domestic abuse framework and process codified in the current ATP rules, Zverev could very easily appeal, or much more likely given the lack of framework, sue, the ATP.
And what of the the still nascent PTPA (Professional Tennis Players Association)? In the American leagues listed above, each of the domestic abuse polices were created along with negotiation (or collective bargaining) with the various unions within each of those leagues. Tennis doesn’t yet have an equivalent, but the PTPA has already signed up, apparently hundreds, of players with a view to giving players a better represented voice over tour policy and player rights. If a tennis player, who has not been criminally charged, is suspended without pay by a tennis organistion, how would a player body, already partially disgruntled over what they see as an overly powerful set of ATP executives, react? The upcoming months that will surround this issue will be extremely fraught for tennis and the ATP in particular. If the ATP acts indecisively it will look like their processes failed. If they act decisively they risk significant legal action and more questions about player unionisation.
Tennis, after consulting with a litany of legal advice over what is and isn’t possible when it comes to dealing with its independent contractor players, may need to draft its own, highly specific and novel, policies moving forward. There are unfortunately no easy examples to follow in other independent and highly international sports.
As we look forward, there are two discussions worth having. The first is about what should be done in the case of Zverev and the ongoing investigation. And the second is what should be done to be learned from the Zverev issue going forward. It’s quite likely that at this point, without process in place for when the alleged incidents actually happened in Shanghai, Geneva and New York, that the ATP will struggle to adequately impose any authority on the situation. But using the Zverev case as a catalyst for how to handle such an important issue in the future is absolutely paramount.
Domestic violence remains a deeply misunderstood issue. In an ideal world it would not be left up to sports organisations to play jury, judge and executioner1. But the criminal justice systems, even in the most advanced nations on earth, are very far from perfect, or even approachable, for victims of domestic abuse.
The solution seems to be a combination of four complimentary things, or at least a combination of some of them:
Courts: Continued progressive reform within the criminal justice systems. For example ‘coercive control’ (i.e nonphysical abuse such as psychological, financial and emotional abuse that regularly underpins or leads to physical domestic abuse) was first recognised as a criminal offence by England and Wales in 2015 (and Scotland in 2018), on the back of the Domestic Violence Law Reform campaign led by Women’s Aid et al. Other nations are now following suit but it is still not yet recognised by Federal law in the United States.
Sports Orgs Education: Significant investment into education around domestic abuse by tennis organisations to prevent abuse in the first place. The MLB, NBA, NFL, Premier League have all put education about domestic abuse et al into practice at both the grass roots and professional levels as a preventative measure.
Sports Orgs Policy (Training): At the very least, investment into educating tennis organisation employees about how to handle discovering, reporting, and communicating instances of domestic abuse (these are explicitly laid out in the American league’s policies referenced above and the Premier League policy). An ATP/LaverCup official is alleged to have communicated with Zverev during one of the alleged incidents in Geneva in 2019. Whether or not that person had any training to identify what was happening or whether to report it is completely unknown. One of the best arguments for a codified domestic abuse policy is that evidence and testimony is regularly thin, fleeting, or retracted by emotional coercion in the aftermath of the abuse. That evidence is far more likely to be accurately gathered at the time of the abuse rather than two years later, when phone data, physical traces, or victim willingness to cooperate etc may have been deleted or faded2. This may well end up being one of the larger failings of the ATP in this specific instance.
Sports Org Policy (Process and Investigation) Tennis will have to navigate this minefield of complexity very carefully. As a result I would caution fans to keep expectations low considering the ATP has fewer resources than the American leagues, or the Premier League, while also operating in a much more difficult environment. At minimum tennis needs to have some sort of low-friction reporting process and helpline for victims of domestic abuse within tennis’ orbit, especially considering that ‘only 18% of women who had experienced partner abuse in 2017/18 in the UK reported that abuse to the police’. If the sport can work out legal ways to discipline its contractor players regardless of whether criminal charges have been pressed, then a clear and transparent investigative and appeal process could then be implemented. The ATP is currently conducting an ‘internal investigation’ into the Zverev allegations. In an ideal world that process would clearly be external to avoid inevitable corruption of incentives, although considering the NBA, NFL, and MLB haven’t been able to remove their own centralised commissioner from the final decision making process, even after reform, this may be wishful thinking.
It’s telling that despite the three American leagues — the NBA, NFL, and MLB —being the most progressive and active actors in the instances of domestic violence by their players, both criminally charged and not, that there is still significant scepticism about the effectiveness of their processes3. Tennis is lightyears behind those three leagues, in part perhaps because of an old fashioned (and topically incorrect) notion that tennis players are supposed to be well behaved, but also because the structure of professional tennis makes it orders of magnitude more difficult to draft functional policy on such a serious and sensitive issue.
Hopefully the ATP can, at least partially, stand on the shoulders of these organisations who have already started work on these issues, while also identifying their failings and areas of opportunity for tennis’ own peculiarities. It’s going to be extremely tough work, but a repeat of the alleged Zverev incident or similar in future, with its plunging of tennis into a sort of unresolved purgatory of outcome, won’t be acceptable to anyone in this sport in years to come.
Most importantly, such a repeat would be deeply unfair for future victims.
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It is always going to be a near-impossible mission for any sports organisation to be sufficiently equipped to act as a truly fair tribunal in assessing guilt.
On the importance of photo/video evidence in convictions of domestic abuse cases: “When you’re in a front of a judge, you describe the injuries written in the complaint, the bruising, the swelling, the blood. But until a person visually sees another human being with those injuries, with the swelling, the blood, the bruising, it’s hard to get that point across.”
Stephanie Stradley, a Houston-based attorney who writes about legal issues in the NFL, points out in her analysis: "Fairness doesn't exist. Life isn't fair. Generally, I'm very reluctant for employers to create shadow tribunals with zero standards that try to craft a more just outcome than the legal system that isn't perfect but at least has some standards and safeguards…. There is no way to make a system like this resemble any sense of fairness or justice.” Stradley also noted to Bleacher Report that the league does better when it educates and provides sufficient resources to prevent issues rather than overestimate its "ability to act as some sort of fair tribunal.”