Domestic violence and assault have touched nearly every corner of sports, across all major leagues and from athletes to executives and everything in between. Over the past decade, many players have been accused of violent acts.
In response, many leagues have introduced new policies addressing violence and abuse, varying from general statements of condemnation to enumerated rights a league holds to respond to an accusation. While this is a step in the right direction, the continued prevalence of violence in sports makes one thing clear -- there’s still a lot of work to be done.
Here’s a brief look at the history of domestic violence in sports.
What policies do the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL have about violence and abuse?
Under MLB’s Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy, there is no maximum or minimum discipline for violation. In addition to possible suspension, players may be asked to undergo counseling, comply with court orders, and turn over any weapons, as determined by a board of three experts and representatives from the MLBPA and Commissioner’s Office. The league also established educational resources for players (in both English and Spanish) and provides confidential resources for players’ families.
The Joint NBA/NBPA policy on Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, and Child Abuse, similar to MLB’s, does not list a maximum or minimum discipline. It was established in 2017 and lays out a policy committee, a confidential hotline, treatment and intervention, and the possibility of paid administrative leave while an investigation is ongoing. The most recent collective bargaining agreement -- set to run through the 2023-24 season -- also includes a minimum 10-game suspension for any player convicted of a violent crime.
The NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy covers any form of violence or abuse, as well as stalking, illegal possession of weapons or drugs, and other crimes. A player may be placed on paid leave (“Commissioner’s Exempt list”) while a league investigation is ongoing. Suspensions for assault (including sexual assault) or domestic violence will last a minimum of six games, without pay. A player who violates the policy again will be banned from the league.
In 2016, the NHL instituted required training for its players about domestic violence and sexual assault. The NHL also reserves the right to suspend a player involved in a criminal investigation if “failure to suspend the player during this period would create a substantial risk of material harm to the legitimate interests and/or reputation of the League.” Unlike the other three major leagues, it does not have a specific policy on how to handle such cases.
What are some notable cases of assault and domestic violence in sports?
On April 29, MLB implemented a 324-game suspension -- equal to two regular seasons -- against Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer, who was accused of assaulting a woman in 2021. He had been on administrative leave since July 2, 2021. Throughout the investigation, another allegation of physical assault in 2017 was also unearthed. The Los Angeles County District Attorney ultimately opted not to bring criminal charges on the original complaint against Bauer, but the MLB proceeded with their investigation and suspended him without pay effective immediately.
Outside of lifetime bans, this is the longest suspension sentencing in the history of baseball (Felipe Vasquez has been on indefinite suspension since September 2019 and is currently serving a sentence for 15 counts relating to child sexual abuse). Bauer is the 16th player to be suspended since the Joint Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy was enacted in 2015. The other players’ suspensions lasted between 15 and 162 games.
On February 15, 2014, Ray Rice, the starting running back for the Baltimore Ravens, and his then-fiancee, now-wife, Janay Palmer, got into an altercation at a casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey. An initial video -- released by TMZ Sports -- showed Rice carrying Palmer’s unconscious body off an elevator.
Rice was indicted on third-degree aggravated assault on March 27. The following day, he and Palmer married. While criminal charges were eventually dropped in favor of court-mandated counseling, the NFL still suspended him for the first two games of the 2014 season.
In the months that followed, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell admitted he “didn’t get it right” in handling the situation and vowed to make necessary changes in the review and conclusion process going forward. In September, the Ravens released Rice, and Goodell suspended him indefinitely after another video of the incident emerged showing him striking Palmer unconscious. Rice appealed the indefinite suspension and won, but no team signed him.
Ruling: Suspended two games, then indefinitely (later reinstated), for assault against his then-fiancee.
Months after winning his second Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2014, Voynov was arrested for charges of domestic violence against his wife, Marta Varlamova.
The NHL immediately suspended the defenceman, citing the collective bargaining agreement’s provision that allows the league to suspend any player involved in a criminal investigation. The Kings later attempted to circumvent this suspension, allowing Voynov to attend a team practice, but were later fined $100,000 for their violation.
In the hearing that ensued nearly two months after the initial incident, officers testified that Varlamova disclosed Voynov had kicked, punched and choked her. Officers also cited finding blood throughout the couple’s bedroom and a cut along Varlamova’s face that required eight stitches, believed to be the result of Voynov pushing her into a flat-screen TV.
He attempted an NHL comeback in 2019, after his year-long suspension was reduced to 41 games as he received credit for previously served time. However, the Kings cut ties and he’s been in the KHL ever since.
Ruling: Year-long suspension for the 2019-20 season, which was later converted to 41 games, receiving credit for the 41-game suspension he served the previous year.
Russell, a key piece to the Chicago Cubs 2016 World Series run, sat out a total of 40 games (11 in the 2018 season and 29 in the 2019 season) after the MLB deemed his wife’s allegations of abuse to be credible.
Melisa Reidy-Russell initially took to Instagram in June 2017 to accuse her husband of a year and a half of cheating. A friend of Reidy-Russell’s commented with allegations of abuse, prompting the MLB to open an investigation into the claims. Despite initially refusing to cooperate with the investigation, Reidy-Russell eventually disclosed accounts of physical and emotional abuse throughout the couple’s two-year marriage. Their divorce was finalized in August 2017.
Russell returned to the field after completing his 40-game suspension, but was largely met with boos and struggled to maintain his position in the lineup. The Cubs ultimately sent Russell to the Triple-A Iowa Cubs briefly before he was tendered at the end of the 2019 season. He spent the last two seasons in South Korea and Mexico.
Ruling: Suspended 40 games for abuse against his then-wife
The NFL handed Elliott a six-game suspension heading into his sophomore campaign after concluding in a year-long investigation that the Dallas Cowboys running back violated the league’s personal conduct policy. He was specifically accused of inflicting multiple physical injuries on an ex-girlfriend over a five-day period in July 2016 while in Florida.
What followed the initial suspension was a legal whirlwind that involved Elliott, the NFL and the NFL Players Association. Elliott unsuccessfully appealed the suspension, despite the NFL’s lead investigator recommending that he should not be suspended based on the evidence. Meanwhile, the NFLPA took the matter to federal court, earning an injunction granting him permission to play on the grounds that the league’s disciplinary process was unfair.
The suspension was reinstated and appealed by the NFLPA two more times before it was finally upheld a fourth time, leading the Players Association to drop its lawsuit and Elliott to withdraw his appeal and serve the six-game suspension toward the end of the 2017 season.
Ruling: Suspended for six games for alleged domestic violence
In November 2012, the two-time Olympic gold-medalist and 2015 World Cup Champion and her then-boyfriend, Jerramy Stevens, were involved in an altercation that ended in Steven’s arrest and a cut to Solo’s elbow. A judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence to hold him and the next day the two were married.
A year and a half later, Solo was arrested for two counts of assault in the fourth degree. She hit her half-sister and nephew, claiming self-defense. She sat out one game following her arrest, but was never formally suspended. U.S. Soccer came under fire for the lack of punishment, with many arguing her case represented a double standard based on gender when evaluating allegations of violence.
Ruling: Sat one game
Less than three months after Rice knocked his fiance unconscious, Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy was arrested for allegedly assaulting and threatening an ex-girlfriend. The responding officers reported there was “probable cause to believe” the allegations that included “throwing [the victim] into a bathtub, slamming her against a futon and strangling her.”
In mid-July of 2014, two months after the initial arrest, Hardy was found guilty of assault and communicating threats, earning him an 18-month probation. Hardy appealed the decision in front of a jury, where his conviction was eventually overturned after the victim failed to appear in court.
In the meantime, Hardy was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list while the league investigated. While he was prevented from participating in team activities, he was still allowed to collect weekly payments of his $13.1 million franchise tag.
The league initially concluded they had “sufficient credible evidence” to suspend Hardy 10 games as he acted in violation of the Personal Conduct Policy. However, an arbitrator eventually reduced the ban to four games on the grounds that “ten games is simply too much … of an increase over prior cases without notice,” citing the six-game baseline suspension established the season prior.
Hardy’s case often stands in contrast with Rice’s as they occurred over the same offseason, but with rather different outcomes. The charges were completely expunged from Hardy’s record on Nov. 5, 2015, one day before Deadspin released photos of the abuse. He also returned to the field for one more season, starting in all 12 games for the Dallas Cowboys once he served his four-game suspension.
Ruling: Suspended 10 games, but later reduced to four games, for assaulting and threatening his ex-girlfriend