Organisations must take action if athlete has breached behaviour codes rather than hide behind legal process
The recent outpouring of anger towards the NFL over its response to incidents of domestic violence involving players has been an exception rather than the norm in professional sport.
In general, there is a culture of apathy when it comes to sporting identities and domestic violence.
There is an automatic assumption when a male sports star is arrested for assaulting another male that the incident must have been pretty bad. The guy is a thug, a grub, a bad egg. Yet if the incident is domestic violence related, it is often brushed off as a minor indiscretion. The guy made a mistake in the heat of the moment and really, was there that much in it?
That is, unless there is video footage or images released of the incident.
In the recent case of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, the NFL was moved to action only after a deluge of bad press. It was more concerned with its public image than Rice's violent act.
But then the existence of a shocking video that showed Rice dragging his fiancee out of an elevator after he punched her unconscious put his offence in the spotlight in a way that other athletes have avoided. As an article last week in the New York Times concluded, had that footage not come to light, Rice would probably have been suiting up for the Ravens this week.
Under the headline "Ray Rice is an outlier: most domestic abuse suspects play on", the article documented several instances of other high-profile sports stars who have been charged after committing violent acts against their partners that escaped punishment from their respective employers.
Closer to home, there was widespread condemnation of Manu Samoa rugby legend Brian Lima after a local newspaper published photos of his ex-wife sporting serious facial injuries inflicted by him. Lima was forced to resign from his position as defence coach of the Samoan team after the article appeared.
Compare that with the public reaction when Julian Savea was charged with assault lastyear.
There was barely any suggestion that Savea would be stood down for any period and, if there was, the reasons centred on performance and whether he would be distracted.
The NZRU also cleverly front-footed the issue, pre-empting any talk of possible sanctions by hiding behind the legal process.
"As his employer, we want to ensure that our process regarding misconduct proceedings also respects his right to a fair hearing in court, so we will await the conclusion of the court process," chief executive Steve Tew told media at the time, despite Savea having only minutes earlier stood in the same room and tearfully admitted he had acted improperly.
(Savea later avoided a conviction after complying with a police demand to complete an anger management course and to publicly apologise to his victim.)
The NZRU's response is not uncommon - sporting organisations have been reluctant to step in and act before the legal process has played out. This is a cop-out.
While athletes are fully entitled to the presumption of innocence when it comes to criminal charges, that shouldn't prevent sporting bodies from acting if the athlete in question has breached behavioural codes.
It shouldn't take horrific imagery of domestic violence victims to force sporting bodies to act.