A National Football League player is accused of cruelty to animals, and the public's outrage knows no bounds. But when a star athlete is accused - and convicted - of domestic violence, the court of public opinion is often far more lenient in its judgment. Do we care more about the fate of a dog than we do that of a woman?
For the past several weeks, the media have been buzzing with the story of Michael Vick. The Atlanta Falcons quarterback allegedly hosted and bet on dogfights, and punished dogs that didn't win by electrocuting and drowning them. Mr. Vick pleaded not guilty to federal conspiracy and dogfighting charges and faces up to five years in prison if convicted. He has been forbidden to return to the Falcons' training camp, and his endorsement deal with Nike has been suspended. In a recent Sports Illustrated poll, the vast majority of those responding called for Mr. Vick to be suspended from the NFL for life.
If Mr. Vick is guilty of these charges, what he has done is horrific. But I can't help thinking about how differently Mr. Vick is being treated than the innumerable athletes who chose to abuse their partners instead of their pets. Lawrence Phillips. Raphael Cherry. Jason Richardson. Derrick Rodgers. Bobby Chouinard. Michael Pittman. All were convicted of physically abusing their wives or partners. Few were suspended by their teams; Mr. Chouinard continued to play for the Colorado Rockies after holding a loaded gun to his wife's head, serving a one-year sentence in three-month increments during the off-season. Mr. Phillips returned to football practice at the University of Nebraska shortly after dragging his girlfriend down several flights of stairs.
Some of these athletes went on to even greater fame after the assaults, signing new endorsement deals and winning more lucrative contracts. None faced the level of public disgust that Mr. Vick has faced since the story broke - even though Mr. Vick has only been accused of crimes, while they were convicted for their violence.
Those who battle against domestic violence used to talk about how there were more animal shelters than shelters for battered women in this country. That may not be true any longer, but the public reaction to the Michael Vick case is another reminder of how much more seriously we seem to take animal abuse than domestic violence. Penalties for animal abuse are still greater than penalties for domestic violence in some states. An injury to "man's best friend" is cause for public outcry; injury to his partner, the mother of his children, doesn't seem to be nearly as shocking.
Imagine the message it would send if athletes were sanctioned as seriously for beating their wives as for beating their dogs.
Leigh Goodmark is an associate professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and director of its Family Law Clinic. Her e-mail is email@example.com.