What’s more American than Thursday night football? It’s all good-natured competition, enthusiastic fans, sexy cheerleaders, and the inescapable shadow of intimate partner violence.
Confused? So were we when, in the most uncomfortable pop culture pairing since Miley Cyrus and the foam finger, CBS announced that Jay Z and Rihanna would be opening Thursday Night Football with a performance of “Run This Town.” This news would be entirely unremarkable if the debut game didn’t feature the Baltimore Ravens, who have been in the hot seat for months due to the ongoing Ray Rice domestic abuse scandal. Apparently, CBS became aware of the strangeness of its intentions just hours before kickoff, and decided to pull Rihanna from the opening segment altogether.
Running back Ray Rice was infamously suspended from the Baltimore Ravens for a paltry two games following accusations that he physically assaulted his fiancée in a casino elevator. That was back in July; it took months for the Ravens to finally release Rice and for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to suspend him indefinitely. This escalation of sanctions was triggered by September’s TMZ release of video footage of the full attack, which increased calls for serious NFL action. Groups like the National Organization of Women, who maintain that the NFL has a “violence against women problem,” are justified in their accusations of ignorance and apathy—law enforcement officials maintain that they turned over complete footage of the assault to NFL executives way back in April.
While the NFL released a statement that, “We are not aware of anyone in our office who possessed or saw the video before it was made public,” this is clearly a case of either startling incompetence or deliberate lack of action. Either way, the organization failed to appropriately punish criminal behavior. And let’s not forget that horrific victim-blaming tweet the Baltimore Ravens shared following Janay and Ray Rice’s joint press conference.
The irony of the rationale (or lack thereof) behind Thursday night’s intended performance is that it combines an organization that’s desperately trying to outrun the stigma of a mishandled case of intimate partner violence with a celebrity whose name is inextricably linked to a parallel scandal.
Back in 2009, domestic abuse was also TMZ’s disgusting excuse for hot click bait—namely, graphic photographs of a beaten Rihanna. The story of Rihanna’s assault by Chris Brown is an extremely disturbing one, not just due to the violence of the attack but because of the re-victimization and stigmatization that Rihanna faced in the months and years after the incident. The public airing of this private matter cast the pop star as the face of domestic abuse, an uncomfortable position and one the singer did not pursue or consent to.
Rihanna’s involvement in a high-profile case of intimate partner violence tragically became a huge part of her identity as a performer and as a public figure. As we sit down every week to watch Thursday Night Football, we are tacitly supporting an organization that did as little as it possibly could to condemn Ray Rice’s assault. The least we can do is attempt to ensure that the NFL’s pattern of violence and acquittal is not swept under the rug.
Rihanna’s presence has clearly been blotted out from Thursday Night Football in an attempt to avoid further scandal. However, despite her absence, she’s an important figure to keep in mind as the Ray Rice controversy continues to unfold. Five years has hardly weakened the doubtlessly burdensome link between Rihanna and domestic abuse; let’s not let the perpetrators and enablers of this insidious breed of violence escape unscathed.