Toxicology reports are back for NFL wide receiver Chris Henry. The results show that Henry died in Charlotte last December from a fractured skull and other head injuries, which occurred when he jumped or fell from a moving truck; his fiancée Loleini Tonga was behind the wheel. The story made national headlines and kicked off a media frenzy about Tonga’s innocence or guilt.
High-profile domestic disputes, especially those involving NFL players, aren’t new in Charlotte. Former Carolina Panther Ray Carruth murdered the mother of his child more than 10 years ago. And in 2003, Deidra Lane killed Carolina Panthers running back Fred Lane, alleging domestic abuse.
Folks took a particular interest in the Henry case because the athlete, who experienced some problems early in his career, had supposedly turned his life around, winning his spot back on the Cincinnati Bengals — a team that had previously dismissed him for bad behavior.
According to witnesses, Tonga was fleeing a domestic dispute with Henry at the couple’s home. Henry jumped into the back of the pick-up truck when Tonga drove off and, somehow, he was ejected from the vehicle. Authorities ruled the incident an accident, declining to press charges against Tonga.
When the accident first happened, comment threads surfaced on the Web calling Tonga a murderer. Some people said: “Had she just pulled over, he would be alive.” I thought to myself, “Had he been able to control his emotions and not chased her out of the house and jumped on the back of the truck when she left, he would be alive.”
I heard and read that Tonga was driving at breakneck speed, purposely making him fall off of the truck. Investigators found that Tonga was not traveling more than 19 mph. I thought perhaps Henry’s anger, adrenaline or superior physical condition contributed to his “jumping” from the truck. I remember trying to reserve judgment until more facts became available, even though in my mind it was clear that it was a dispute gone wrong.
But when trying to chat about it with friends, male and female, the same tone crept into the conversation: Tonga, who was called every name but a child of God (including “bitch,” “whore” and “gold digger”), was supposedly this venomous woman who plotted to trap Henry and purposely kill him. Really? It’s always interesting that people think athletes are so much better than the women they date. But I digress.
When I asked folks who spoke so harshly about Tonga what was driving their anger, many simply stated that they were giving Henry the benefit of the doubt. I thought to myself: “Why weren’t they willing to give Tonga the benefit of the doubt?” One friend said Tonga left him on the side of the road, which shows that she knew what she was doing. But Henry, who ran out of his house and jumped in the back of her truck, didn’t know what he was doing? Another colleague stated that if Tonga had stayed in the house or not driven off, Henry would be alive. I wondered aloud, “But would Tonga be alive?”
It was clear that very few people cared about this woman because she wasn’t an NFL player. In their minds, she was some “groupie” who bagged a professional athlete and killed him for no reason. Folks were blind to the facts that were coming out about the case. With all of that selective hearing and reading, it was determined that Tonga was a horrible person. I suppose if a woman isn’t a pop superstar, then it doesn’t matter if she’s involved in a volatile or abusive romantic relationship. But that’s another article.
The irony of the situation is that this type of thinking about women informs domestic violence. Women as evil temptresses who lead men to do dubious things is part of the world’s historical narrative in all aspects of society including religion, education and popular culture. It is communicated to us every day that women are objects of desire who cannot be trusted. When women try to escape this way of thinking, they are usually punished … much like Tonga. And it is not just men who think like this — it is also women, many of whom raise batterers.
With the recent findings that Henry was not intoxicated or on drugs during the incident, the hating on Tonga has resumed. The failure to address Henry’s role in the domestic dispute that cost him his life has resumed as well. While domestic violence incidents are present, real conversations about the problem are nonexistent.
This incident made me think about the countless number of domestic disputes that happen in Charlotte that don’t get national news coverage. Last year 617 women were admitted to Charlotte’s Shelter for Battered Women. More than 2,000 were turned away. So what are victims to do if there is nowhere for them to run?
A campaign is currently underway to build a larger battered women’s shelter, which is good and bad for obvious reasons. Unless we get a handle on this epidemic, clearly there will be plenty of high- and no-profile cases. As evidenced by the Henry case, no one wins when it comes to domestic violence.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. is serves as cultural critic for Creative Loafing. She is also an editor-at-large for TheRoot.com, where she writes the Buzz Section and feature stories.