Chris Henry’s Death Exposes Double Standard

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.

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Reflections on the Death of Steve McNair

Last week, NFL great Steve McNair was laid to rest. A man who led a charmed life as an athlete, making history, setting records, coming from an HBCU in this day and age and taking his NFL expansion team to the Super Bowl only to lose in grand style.

McNair was the truth on the field and apparently off, performing community service, mentoring young players like Vince Young, and was a mainstay at his son’s football games. McNair seemingly never missed a game and could be seen on the sidelines every Friday during football season cheering on his boy.

The man, who had grown up poor and without a father in the household, made it his mission to be there for his sons and other young men — like his brother Fred had been there for his four brothers and him. Even an arrest in 2003 for driving under the influence could not undermine his reputation. It was clear to most that he was a good guy who made a bad decision. As was customary on the field for him, McNair would learn from his mistakes and not commit them again.

The murder of Steve McNair sent shockwaves throughout the country. He was young, talented and in great shape. To learn that he was dead was incomprehensible to many because, as one of the toughest quarterbacks to ever set foot on the field, he had survived tremendous tackles and was known to play superbly, especially while nursing injuries.

According to reports, he was killed by Sahel Kazemi, his 20-year-old girlfriend, while sleeping. She shot him twice in the head and twice in the chest before turning the gun on herself. By some accounts McNair was happily married with four sons (two with his wife and two from previous relationships). His life was a classic American success story. With the help of his older brother, he had risen from poverty to super success on and off the field, so why would he risk it all for an orgasm?

McNair joined the ranks of many successful and powerful people who destroyed their lives and the lives of others through extramarital relationships. Some say that McNair had every right to be dating Kazemi because he may have been “separated” from his wife. Just because one is separated does not mean that he or she has the right to behave in a way that brings shame to his family. He or she is still legally married and should keep that in mind, particularly when young people, especially sons, are looking up to him. Gallivanting around town with a young waitress, with whom you’re clearly playing, is not cool.

No, I’m not trying to judge McNair. People are full of contradictions, and you never know what’s going on in marriages. In addition to the many wonderful things that people learned from McNair’s life — strength, integrity, focus and commitment — they can also learn something from his tragic death.

Just because you can get away with something does not mean that you do it. How sad is it that the same qualities he possessed in his football and community endeavors did not apply to his romantic life. Imagine if he had approached love and romance with the same level of integrity, strength, commitment and focus to which he approached football? He could have been a champion off the field as well and that is the lesson in this tragedy.

Romantic relationships should not be any different than other relationships — professional, spiritual or familial. As an adult, playing with people’s emotions should be off the table. By the time you hit 36 years of age, you’ve seen all of the damage that this can cause, especially with young people. You’ve caused that kind of damage before and probably have been on the receiving end of it. Why continue to mistreat folks?

Kazemi’s family stated that they had met McNair on multiple occasions and that he had promised that he would leave his wife in order to marry Sahel. McNair’s family had never met Kazemi or heard of her. You don’t need Greg Behrendt or Steve Harvey to tell you that if you’re dating someone to the extent that they were dating each other — for more than six months — and you haven’t met the family that lives in the same city, you will not be marrying that person. At best, you’re the flavor of the month … and at worst you’re the jump-off.

It is sad when tragedies like this occur. Some say that McNair wasted his life by getting with this woman. But his life was not a waste and neither was hers because they have reminded us in life and death to put family first, and think more of ourselves and others.

I don’t feel sorry for McNair or Kazemi. I feel sad for their families, particularly McNair’s sons who must now permanently grow up without a father in the household, just like him.

This article originally appeared in Creative Loafing, where Nsenga serves as pop cultural critic. She is also managing editor of TheLoop21.com and an Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Goucher College in Md.

Examining the NFL’s so-called system of justice

I sure hope that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is a saint — because his law-and-order approach to football is flawed at best and downright ridiculous at worst. The commissioner recently suspended NFL player Donté Stallworth indefinitely for his role in a DUI case that left a pedestrian dead.

Let me be clear, I am disgusted that Stallworth only got 30 days for taking a man’s life. Yes, he stayed with the victim at the scene of the crime, immediately admitted wrongdoing to the police officer and has shown nothing but remorse for hitting and killing a man while driving drunk. Stallworth reached a settlement with the victim’s family for an undisclosed amount of money, plead guilty to the crime, will be under house arrest for two years after serving his sentence, made a donation to Mothers Against Drunk Driving and has lost his license for life. Yet and still, 30 days for taking someone’s life while driving drunk is too short.

Initial reports stated that the victim stepped in front of Stallworth’s vehicle, which was corroborated by witnesses; that may be why the judge was so lenient, coupled with the NFL player’s remorse, humility, willingness to cooperate with the justice system — and oh yeah, he’s a celebrity. In my mind, when you kill someone, even accidentally, while driving drunk, you should have to spend more than 30 days in jail. That’s just me. I’m not a lawyer or a judge, so I have to allow the justice system to do its thing, however flawed. I think that the justice system failed in this instance as it relates to Stallworth’s jail time, but it is what it is, whether he’s an average Joe or a celebrity.

Having said that, I do believe that the justice system exists for a reason and that the NFL should get out of the business of arbitrarily assigning further punishment to players. Commissioner Goodell spoke out against Stallworth suspending him from the league indefinitely. Even if the justice system goes soft on a criminal, it is not up to the NFL to go hard on him. I don’t think Stallworth should be suspended indefinitely, especially after he has paid his debt to society, which is what we ask of all Americans. I don’t think that professional athletes should be treated any differently.

I’m not saying that the NFL shouldn’t suspend Stallworth … but indefinitely? I feel the same way about Michael Vick. What he did was heinous, but he has paid his debt to society. He has been punished, so why must he continue to be punished by the NFL?

Just who is Roger Goodell? He must be perfect; and if he isn’t, he ought to be — based on how he wields his “gavel.” To show how imperfect the justice system is, Stallworth serves 30 days for killing a man, while Vick served two years for killing dogs. I am a dog owner and dog lover, but I would like for someone to spend more time in jail for killing me than for killing my dog. (And I love my pooty-wooty.)

I might agree with the commissioner’s punishment if he had consistency in how he dealt with players who commit crimes. I think it’s crazy that Michael Vick is suspended from the league indefinitely but Cornell Green of the Oakland Raiders is not, although he was arrested for slamming his girlfriend — the mother of his two children — into a wall and then beating her with an aluminum mop. Cedrick Wilson broke down a door and slapped his girlfriend in the face while arguing about whether to baptize their son. Falcons player Jonathan Babineaux was arrested and convicted for animal cruelty for bashing in the head of his girlfriend’s dog while they were arguing. Quinn Ojinnaka of the Falcons fought his wife after she confronted him about a woman on his Facebook page. For some reason, they are all still in the league.

Some of you are thinking that this is exactly why Commissioner Goodell needs to fine and suspend athletes. I’m thinking that this is exactly why he does not. It seems to me that his “moral barometer” is a little off and arbitrary. Why does he react so strongly to Vick and Stallworth, but remains silent in matters of domestic violence, which are far more prevalent in the NFL? I guess the justice system works all right when it comes to beating on wives and girlfriends, just not when it comes to beating on dogs.

Do you have to be charged with the crime or just accused of the behavior? When does one get suspended? Before or after being charged with a crime? If charges are dropped or the player is acquitted, should the NFL still punish the player? If so, how? What about the coaches? We won’t even mention the broadcasters.

My point is that the justice system is imperfect, and so is the NFL’s so-called system of justice. This is an organization that readily recruits thugs (some, not all) and criminals before they even set foot in the NFL. They know who many of them are before they get to the NFL, which is OK, as long as the NFL and owners can keep the money train rolling. If you don’t believe me, do a search of NFL players arrested and witness the ridiculous number of results.

Until Goodell and the NFL get some consistent guidelines for punishing crimes by players and coaches, and think about moral character when actually recruiting players, there will be no justice and no peace.

This post originally appeared in Creative Loafing where Nsenga serves as cultural critic.