ESPN commentator: Women should take responsibility for "provocation" when they are assaulted

"The elements of provocation, you got to make sure that you address them," ESPN's Stephen A. Smith said Friday

Published July 25, 2014 6:00PM (EDT)

Stephen A. Smith          (AP)
Stephen A. Smith (AP)

Stephen A. Smith, co-host of ESPN's "First Take," wonders why women don't take more responsibility when they are violently assaulted by their partners. And more than just women failing to own up to the things that they do to provoke their partners into violently assaulting them, Smith wonders why society as a whole is silent on this issue of asking women to "prevent the situation from happening" when the situation that is happening is them being violently assaulted.

Important questions, all.

Smith monologues for quite a while before making the point about women provoking domestic violence, but he eventually lands here (emphasis mine):

But domestic violence or whatever the case may be, with men putting their hands on women, is obviously a very real, real issue in our society. And I think that just talking about what guys shouldn't do, we got to also make sure that you can do your part to do whatever you can do to make, to try to make sure it doesn't happen. We know they're wrong. We know they're criminals. We know they probably deserve to be in jail. In Ray Rice's case, he probably deserves more than a 2-game suspension which we both acknowledged. But at the same time, we also have to make sure that we learn as much as we can about elements of provocation. Not that there's real provocation, but the elements of provocation, you got to make sure that you address them, because we've got to do is do what we can to try to prevent the situation from happening in any way. And I don't think that's broached enough, is all I'm saying. No point of blame.

This is, of course, ignorant and dangerous. It is abuser's logic repackaged as personal responsibility. "If only she wouldn't act this way, I wouldn't have to get violent." "She knows just the buttons to push that make me fly off the handle." "Why do you make me do this?" And when the culture parrots the abuser's logic, victims are silenced. Because it's harder to come out and get help if you think you're going to be blamed for what's happened to you.

Now we know how this will all play out because because we've been here before. Smith's comments will likely be denounced by ESPN, he will likely issue an apology, and we will all definitely move on. And when something just like this happens again? Rinse and repeat.

But Smith is not some outlier and his attitudes about domestic violence don't exist in a vacuum. Just like the "Game of Thrones" director who argued that rape can become "consensual by the end" was actually just articulating a pretty common belief about sexual assault. Just like George Will isn't alone in thinking that the rates of sexual violence on college campuses have been grossly exaggerated because sexual assault is now a "coveted status" that confers victims with "privileges." These guys aren't aberrations, they are the norm. A steady and reliable stream of justifications and excuses. Predictable as the sun as it rises and sets. This is what a culture of violence against women looks like.

The problem comes, it seems, when you're a little too blunt about the rules of the game. After all, Smith made his comments in response to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's decision to penalize a man charged with violently assaulting his wife with a two-game suspension. (To make his good guy bonafides clear, Smith even concedes that Ray Rice "probably deserves more than a two-game suspension.") And this was, of course, after Rice was allowed to enter a pre-trial diversionary program that will allow him to avoid jail time and possibly have the charges removed from his record.

But Smith doesn't connect the dots between the lack of repercussions for assaulting one's partner and his own thinking about domestic violence. Goodell suspended Rice for two games because he knew he could get away with it. Because he knew that enough people in this country probably think -- like Smith does -- that Janay Rice did something to provoke Rice into allegedly hitting her so hard she lost consciousness. That an incident that a grand jury classified as aggravated felony assault was really just a private disagreement between two people, and that it's not their place to judge.

The disconnect runs deep in Smith because it runs deep everywhere else. He starts out saying that men "have no business" putting their hands on a woman. But Smith also clearly believes -- an idea reinforced in our culture and our criminal justice system -- that there are reasons that men can put their hands on a woman. It just depends on the woman, it seems.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

MORE FROM Katie McDonough