Floyd Mayweather is a serial abuser of women. As much as I love using the Internet to lob sweeping generalization grenades that have only minimal factual support, I think this one’s entirely fair. Since 2001, the man had been involved in an incredible seven incidents involving five different women that resulted in either arrest or citation (in my helpful pre-fight flow chart last week, I apparently neglected to count one of these incidents; I did not mean to portray Floyd Mayweather as any less prolific of an abuser than he actually is; my bad). Only the most dedicated, willfully blind member of The Money Team you could ever conjure could call this pattern anything other than alarmingly sociopathic. And yet, appallingly and incredibly, Mayweather’s primary defense is as simple as an annoying bit of Internet slang that you probably last used in seriousness (if ever) when Bush was president: pics or it didn’t happen.
“Like I’ve said in the past, no bumps, no bruises, no nothing,” Mayweather said. “With O.J. and Nicole, you seen pictures. With Chris Brown and Rihanna, you seen pictures. With Ochocinco and Evelyn, you seen pictures. You guys have yet to see any pictures of a battered woman, a woman who says she was kicked and beaten (by Mayweather).”
And, apparently in his mind, QED. This is a grown man whose principal response to pointed media questions about his troublingly lengthy history of domestic violence is, basically, the “prove it” defense usually proffered by eight-year-olds, faces covered in Gogurt, when they are accused of stealing their little brother’s Gogurt. He never speaks about domestic violence at length or with any degree of self-awareness; he never engages on the issue in the abstract; he hasn’t even decided to start doing the thing that famous people do when they know they’re in trouble, where they politely decline further questions and instead refer interview requests to their attorney. On the contrary, perhaps the most shocking thing about Floyd Mayweather’s history of domestic abuse, other than its voluminousness, is the fact that he clearly just doesn’t give two shits about what other people think of it.
Mayweather’s bald assertion of this defense-by-internet-meme is as crass and tasteless as it is disingenous. But on the other hand, you can’t really blame him for adopting it when he’s seen the same approach taken, albeit implicitly, by other very famous people accused of doing very bad things. Unfortunately, loosely termed “legal troubles” have become so de rigeur in modern sports and entertainment that, absent some distinguishing characteristic or particularly damning detail, fans simply stopped ascribing meaning to the components of one’s “checkered history” a long time ago — particularly where the accused du jour then manages to dazzle, entertain, and conquer in short order.
Take Kobe, the second-best shooting guard of all time, a five-time NBA champion, and a smiling corporate pitchman dozens of times over; it’s now perilously easy to forget that in 2003, he was charged with the sexual assault of a 19-year-old Colorado hotel employee. Though the prosecutor dropped the case a few weeks before trial was to begin after the victim declined to testify, and a related civil case with the woman was later settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, a sort of vague discomfort about Kobe-the-person still persists; anonymously sourced anecdotes portraying him as a misanthropic loner have gradually replaced the darker history that gave birth to this reputation in the first place. Over on the gridiron, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has two sexual assault allegations to his name, including one in the restroom of a Georgia nightclub that went away only when the victim declined to proceed further because of the media onslaught that doing so would bring. In the meantime, Big Ben busied himself winning two titles for Steelers Nation, and today all of that nasty history manifests itself in popular discourse only in the watered-down, under-explained “creep” designation that still takes a firm backseat to “leader” and “champion” (and even “Will Ferrell look-alike“). And behind the mic, even Chris Brown has managed to carve out a reputation as the bad-boy singer of his generation after assaulting Rihanna en route to the 2009 Grammy Awards. Again, lots of people today don’t like Chris Brown and generally think of him as a dick. But he kept making hit records with catchy hooks, and now he’s an A-minus-list celebrity who even enjoys the loyalty of a shockingly rabid group of supporters, Team Breezy, who seem to relish his outcast status in coming to his defense. The same basic narrative applies to all of these guys: they maybe did something bad; it was eventually resolved in one quiet way or another; and they quickly did something cool and entertaining and fun that managed to allay most people’s moral misgivings about enjoying their work product.
And for most of his career, this approach worked for Mayweather, too. He made millions while cementing his reputation as the greatest fighter of his generation, and until recently, it seemed that this would be how history remembered him, too. But at some point during the buildup to this most recent fight, the tone began to shift a little bit, and then a lot. Stories about Floyd no longer centered on his awe-inspiring training regimen, his legendary obsession with money, his pristine record in the ring, or even his penchant for gigantic, Instagrammed sports wagers. Instead, for the first time, a different narrative dominated the public discourse: Floyd Mayweather is a dangerous and misogynistic serial abuser, oh, and he also happens to be a pretty good boxer, but…damn.
This fact wasn’t exactly news. It’s just that five years ago, no one really had much to say about Mayweather the serial abuser; instead, he was the one-in-a-generation boxing talent with occasional “personal troubles” or “off-field issues” that happened to interfere with his fight schedule, euphemisms that, particularly when applied to celebrities or athletes, always make your eyes glaze over and your ears slam shut before you even manage to fully thinking about what it is that those phrases gloss over. Hey, he’s maybe the best fighter ever! Wow! This is historic! <plunks down $80 for Mayweather vs. Maidana II>. Punches thrown in the ring were were cool; whatever punches got thrown outside of it were irrelevant.
So, why did people decide to care about all this now? Why were there calls for boycotts of the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight that, for what I’m pretty sure is a first in the history of ill-conceived proposed boycotts of sporting events, actually seemed to gain some traction? (Let’s set aside for now the fact that boycott participants won the night handily, because in addition to not lining the pockets of a serial abuser, they also saved their $100, missed a two-hour, exclamation-point-free glorified sparring match between a couple of past-their-prime fighters, and probably enjoyed watching the greatest Game 7 in NBA playoffs history instead.) Why were prominent female sports journalists so relentless in going after Mayweather that his team actually denied them credentials to the fight (a wonderfully bone-headed move apparently decided by people who were under the impression that the Internet doesn’t exist)? Why was the crowd at the fight reportedly something like 90-10 in favor of Pacquiao, who, while a gregarious and charismatic guy who loves basketball and has served three terms as a legislator in his native Phillippines and is probably ten times more likable than Mayweather simply by virtue of the fact that he doesn’t willingly enter fights flanked by Justin Bieber, has his own track record of homophobia to deal with?
Thesis: it’s because of Ray Rice, the former Ravens running back who, incredibly, will probably never play in the NFL again only two years removed from winning a Super Bowl. At this point, everyone has an opinion about what Ray Rice did in the Atlantic City casino elevator, and, spoiler alert, said opinion is not great. But the facts there weren’t all that special or different from what we’ve seen before; no, the outrage directed at Ray Rice is almost entirely due to the fact that, for the first time maybe ever, Floyd Mayweather’s favorite aphorism-cum-defense was rendered completely and unambiguously unavailable. We have pics. We have pics that are so awful and repulsive and revolting that they caused the league to punish and then almost immediately re-punish him for the same thing, despite how obviously inane this panicked response would have revealed itself to be upon 30 seconds of reflection. While I feel no need to rehash the scathing criticism of the NFL’s handling of the entire incident, it should suffice to say that issuing a two-game suspension for punching one’s wife and then an indefinite suspension because of the existence of a video of the punching of said wife is really not a good look (and definitely triggered thousands of knee-jerked CAPSLOCK TWEETS from irate Ravens fans who had just spent ten minutes reading about double jeopardy on Wikipedia).
Even if you wanted to for some terrible reason, you really can’t watch the footage more than once; not even the infamous, horrifying-in-its-own-right leaked still of a cut, battered, and bruised Robyn Rihanna Fenty quite manages to elicit the visceral reaction that accompanies seeing a grown man knock out the woman he loves and contemptuously spit on her prone body — think about how insane that is — before strolling calmly out of the elevator like he’s looking for the floor’s ice machine or something. Sufficient levels of confusion, doubt, and ambiguity helped everyone collectively manage to move on with Kobe, with Ben, and even with Breezy (who, while he admittedly has the largest remaining critical contingent of the three, also has that virulently loyal Twitter following to proffer expletive-laden defenses of his every misstep). But this time, there are pics, and no one’s ever going to look at Ray Rice the same way again.
Admittedly, it probably isn’t fair that the same hate and backlash that now falls on Rice’s shoulders slid so quietly and easily off those of his predecessors. But that’s different than saying that the collective treatment of batterers must remain rigid and static, or that the behavioral standards to which we hold public icons cannot evolve. They should. Abusers deserve our scorn and contempt, and always have. What’s different is that now that people have seen abuse with their own eyes, uncut and unfiltered, just this one time, they are better than ever at taking it seriously and at holding abusers accountable. This is particularly true for the millions of fans who have no personal experience with domestic violence, who have never seen a loved one get slapped or punched or kicked or stabbed or shot or killed by another loved one, and for whom the Ray Rice video was their first real exposure to what that really looks like. Sure, there are no pictures of Floyd Mayweather breaking into the apartment of the mother of his children at 5 in the morning and kicking her while she lies prone on the floor as their ten-year-old son looks on; no video clips of Greg Hardy dragging his former girlfriend across a bathroom floor and bodily throwing her on a bed covered with loaded shotguns and assault rifles; no grainy cell phone shots of a menacing Adrian Peterson drawing blood as he repeatedly whips his cowering four-year-old with a leather belt. But we are outraged nonetheless because now we can visualize exactly how it went down in those cases, too. It’s gut-wrenching and stomach-turning and nausea-inducing and whatever other stomach malady-related metaphor you use to describe it. One picture, just this one time, is proving itself worth a thousand forgotten allegations, Internet detective second-guessers, and publicly shamed accusers who quietly faded away.
This change manifests itself in the little things, in the subtle shifts in the way people talk and think about domestic violence. The language employed to describe it has become more somber, more serious, and less laden with doubt or qualifiers. Assaults are less frequently dismissed using casually cruel euphemisms (he just “roughed her up a little bit,” or maybe he “laid hands on her”) or tongue-in-cheek sarcastic characterizations meant to downplay the pain and injury caused in favor of eliciting a wry chuckle (he “beat the ever-loving shit out of her” or “smacked her around,” ha-ha!). Now that we’ve seen it in action, we call it what it is: a vicious assault using potentially lethal force.
We aren’t as quick to question or doubt victims as we used to be. We don’t wonder in seriousness if maybe she provoked him, or if perhaps she was asking for it, and those who do spout such idiocy are roundly and rightly shamed. We don’t wonder if a given incident occurred in some sort of poorly-described, meaningless “gray area,” or if the perpetrator and the victim were arguing at the time (as if knocking someone out were just another step in the debate and conciliation process), or if maybe, I don’t know, she hit him first (I simply cannot with this one). Nor are incidents of domestic violence so easily dismissed as the inevitable byproducts of a “troubled marriage,” or a “contentious relationship,” or even an “alcohol-fueled dispute.” Now that we’ve seen it in action, we call it what it is: a crime that is no less of a crime because those involved are people who happen to be or have been in a relationship.
If you’re pretty worked up right now and have been repeatedly muttering “innocent until proven guilty” while reading this, relax. I’m not saying that everyone accused of a crime in fact committed a crime (exception: Kobe, who did it). But I would happily bet my life savings that the (vast) majority of women who report domestic violence are not liars (and dismissing them as such, incidentally, is a pretty sinister form of misogyny in its own right). Domestic violence is not and has never been something that should, by default, be taken lightly and met with suspicion or doubt. More than ever, people are starting to get that.
I also realize that sexual assault and domestic violence aren’t the same thing. Fair. But whether a particular high-profile entertainer committed a particular act, be it Kobe or Roethlisberger or Chris Brown or even Floyd Mayweather, is not the point here (although, again: Kobe did it). The point is that Ray Rice has made us more likely than ever to take violence against women seriously; to imagine how shocked and furious we would be were something like to happen to our loved ones; to realize how this is never OK, ever, no matter the circumstances; and, above all, to really think about how all of this should affect the ways we choose our allegiances, spend our money, and decide who or what we want to cheer for. All of those changes are very good changes. When Mayweather-Pacquiao II happens (don’t worry, it will happen, for roughly 300 million reasons), skip it. You’ll be glad you did.