If the media crusade against domestic violence in sports can teach us anything, it is perhaps to re-emphasize the genius of the Founders in emphasizing that due process is more important than outcome — and enshrining that concept in our Constitution.
The idea may seem cold to a family watching the killer of a loved one walk after being acquitted. As someone whose family members were harassed by stalkers, I know the inefficiency of our judicial system can be unbelievably slow and frustrating. But in a free society, people accused of a crime must have the ability to defend themselves and, when falsely accused, reclaim their good name. That can only happen if we allow the guilty the same opportunity, which is why process is more important than specific outcomes.
The frenzy surrounding allegations of abuse by a coach in Ohio State University’s football program is a prime example of what happens when we decide that if the courts won’t punish that SOB, why, we’ll just do it ourselves to force the outcome we want.
Here’s what we know about the OSU situation: An assistant football coach was arrested in 2009, while he was employed by another university, for allegedly throwing his wife against a wall. She declined to press charges, and he was never charged or convicted. The wife also claims she told OSU head coach Urban Meyer’s wife that her husband had abused her other times.
Based on this, various columnists, reporters, and TV hosts are claiming Meyer should have been fired for not firing the assistant coach. They are basing their argument on Title IX, the 1972 law that guarantees women equal access and opportunity in higher education, saying the law requires Meyer to fire the assistant based on the wife’s accusation that he’d abused her.
Here’s the thing: Congress does not have the authority or power to amend the Constitution by statute, and the Constitution holds that all citizens are to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Further, the 14th Amendment spells out the right of the accused to “due process” — meaning a judicial hearing of some sort (a trial, usually) where they can question witnesses, present their own witnesses, and argue to the jury that they are innocent.
Even if Title IX requires schools to fire all athletic staff accused of domestic violence (not a unanimous viewpoint, by the way), that would be unconstitutional, particularly for public universities like OSU, which are by definition branches of the state government. A private university could more easily fire someone accused of domestic violence for violating their employment rules, but a state university is bound by the Constitution.
Even private universities firing people accused but not charged or convicted of a crime because of pressure from the federal government could be in violation of the Constitution. (Title IX ties eligibility for federal education funds to compliance with enacting various policies and meeting certain measurable criteria.)
Numerous lawsuits are working their way through the courts challenging the constitutionality of Title IX, or at least current interpretations of its requirements. Most of these lawsuits were filed by male college students expelled or otherwise punished for allegedly committing violent sexual crimes. Their lawsuits hold the Title IX standards violated their due process protections, because university policy denied them a fair trial. To date, the courts have sided largely with these students.
The notion that the best way to address the problem of domestic violence is to permanently and publicly destroy those who stand accused of committing the crime (well, some of them, anyway) goes against other important values: fairness, compassion, and redemption.
We have a judicial system for dealing with accusations of criminal wrongdoing. Although the system is flawed — note the numerous death row convicts who have been cleared by advances in DNA analysis — it’s a recipe for disaster to expect universities and professional sports teams to step in and add adjudication of their employees to their existing duties.
Here are some questions all those columnists and TV commentators demanding that this or that coach be fired for not “doing the right thing” should consider: What is your employer’s policy on domestic violence that occurs away from the workplace? Does it have one? If you are accused of domestic violence, but not charged nor convicted, will you be suspended? Will you get paid while suspended? What if a member of the sales team or production department is so accused? Someone who runs the press?
And how many of these folks preaching from their bully pulpits have, in their lives, heard rumors or even allegations of colleagues committing domestic violence? Having worked in that industry for more than a quarter century, I can tell you that journalism is no more immune to domestic violence than any other career path. Did every columnist, every reporter now calling for Meyer’s head report every rumor and allegation to their own human resources department?
There’s a lot of sanctimonious finger-pointing by the media right now, but very little in the way of thoughtful reflection. For starters, the media’s obsession with athletes and coaches accused of domestic violence seems oddly subjective. What about accountants? Line cooks? Auto mechanics? Doctors? School teachers? Should everyone who is accused of domestic violence immediately be fired? Why just athletes and coaches?
And what do these talking heads suggest society actually do with those convicted of domestic abuse? Which jobs are they to be allowed to hold? Will they be permitted to drive trucks? Wash dishes? Work as reporters? Or are they to be pariahs for life, presumed unable and thereby denied the opportunity to reform? And who is to fulfill their financial obligations to their ex-spouses and children if we ban them from the workplace for life?
And since we’re no longer content to allow the justice system to decide these issues, who does get to decide? The media? If so, and they’re no good at it, how do we remove them? Corrupt or incompetent judges can be voted out of office at the state level, impeached by Congress at the federal level. But an unelected media elite deciding who is guilty and who is not does not seem to have much of the flavor of democracy or accountability about it.
This whole bout of self-righteousness is equally haphazard and sclerotic — no different in tone or implementation than other “zero tolerance” campaigns against drugs (“just say no”) or repeat criminals (“three strikes”) that ended up ruining more lives and doing more harm to society than the scourges they were intended to correct. After all, the concept of “zero tolerance” is that we are going to remove discernment from the equation and simply throw the book at everyone.
The great irony here is that overreach on domestic violence can counterproductively belittle the seriousness of the issue. Media coverage of the issue has devolved to the point where there is no credible attempt to explore the roots of the issue, of what drives little boys to grow up into men who hit their partners or other women, of what programs can reduce the recidivism, or of how we bring the greatest possible number of these men back into the fold of society as trusted, trustable members of our community.
A serious issue deserves serious coverage and serious debate. We’re surely not having that right now. Instead, the narrative has become: Men beat women because men are intrinsically evil, and they must be rooted out and destroyed.
It was just a year ago that many in the media were supporting the idea that state legislatures should pass laws banning employers from conducting criminal background checks on job applicants. Once someone had served their time for a crime, they argued, the slate should be wiped clean, because everyone deserves a second chance.
Now, the narrative has pivoted 180 degrees and the media is decreeing that anyone even rumored to have committed domestic violence at any point in their life should be fired immediately. Well, at least athletes and coaches, and Hollywood moguls.
Want domestic violence treated more seriously? Treat it more seriously. Bring pressure to bear on the various state legislatures to pass laws strengthening the punishment for domestic violence. Give judges the tools they need to protect women and children caught in the web of domestic violence. Find the programs that are most successful at rehabilitating the men who commit these crimes.
But for the media to simply decide the process isn’t working and so we’ll take care of it with pitchforks and torches? It may bring about the results many folks want, but the resulting erosion of our judicial process will only weaken all our rights over time.