When people figured out that this week’s Thursday night football game between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers would open with a song from Rihanna, they weren’t pleased, and the NFL gave in to them by agreeing not to play the song. But the reaction says more about how we unfairly treat victims of domestic abuse than it does about the NFL’s sensitivity to violence against women.
CBS Sports and NFL Network plan to open every Thursday night game this season with “Run This Town,” the 2009 collaboration between Jay Z and Rihanna. But, after an especially contentious week of controversy over former Ravens running back Ray Rice — who was dropped from the team after a surveillance video depicting him punching his then-fiancee was made public — it seemed like a bad PR move to include Rihanna, who was infamously the victim of domestic abuse in a former relationship with Chris Brown.
After considerable push back for partnering a Ravens game with a Rihanna song, the NFL Network decided to reconsider. “Run This Town” did not play on Thursday night; instead, CBS aired coverage of the domestic violence controversy surrounding Rice. “We thought… we needed to have the appropriate tone and coverage,” a spokesperson for the NFL Network said.
It’s certainly admirable that CBS aired coverage of the Ray Rice video, and the move might give the NFL a little bit of a PR boost. But if the league is hoping to prove that it’s sensitive to issues of domestic violence, this was actually a misstep. It doesn’t make sense that Rihanna is essentially being punished for being the victim of a crime.
Yes, viewers likely associate Rihanna with domestic violence. The fact that Rihanna was on the receiving end of Chris Brown’s fists is part of our institutional cultural knowledge. In 2009, leaked images of her bruised and battered face went viral on the internet, as millions of people shared the photos without her consent. “People couldn’t turn away; there was something addictive about her visible agony, both as misery porn and an all-purpose rhetorical tool,” Hannah Giorgis recalled in a piece for the Guardian published earlier this week. (That dynamic was also present this week when the surveillance video of the Rices was made public; Janay Rice says that the media scrutiny has ruined her life.)
So yes, Rihanna has become somewhat of a poster image for domestic violence, though it’s a position she has not embraced and likely never wanted. And yes, her voice probably would have reminded last night’s football fans of an ugly issue that the NFL has been accused of grossly mishandling. But that’s not her fault. She’s still the victim in this situation. The abuse perpetrated against her is the only reason why she can’t shake her songs’ association with intimate partner violence, and Rihanna is forever living in the shadow of the violence that was not her responsibility or her decision. Why should she have to make sacrifices in her career because her boyfriend beat her?
By all means, the NFL should feel free to avoid playing Chris Brown’s songs. It makes sense that someone who committed the same act of violence that Ray Rice did would be censored before a Ravens game. But pulling Rihanna’s songs is about as logical as firing Janay Rice from her job.
In fact, if the NFL was committed to empowering survivors of domestic violence, it might have been nice to put a spotlight on a woman like Rihanna, who is still enjoying a hugely successful career — the NFL called her “one of music’s biggest stars” in its press release about the Thursday night football opener — despite what she’s experienced in her past. But if the goal is to create a culture that doesn’t fall back on victim blaming, the NFL still can’t figure out how to get us there.
CBS you pulled my song last week, now you wanna slide it back in this Thursday? NO, Fuck you! Y'all are sad for penalizing me for this.
— Rihanna (@rihanna) September 16, 2014