Commentary Violence

The Cleveland Cavaliers’ Video of Domestic Violence Wasn’t a ‘Mistake’

Jessica Luther

This video, which spread like wildfire across social media last week, was just the latest example of the way organizations continuously downplay the impact of domestic violence and rape culture. In turn, this betrays how little we as a society care for, or even think of, victims of interpersonal violence.

A minute-long video played during the Cleveland Cavaliers’ playoff game against the Chicago Bulls last week started off in a cute, albeit corny, fashion: An apron-clad woman and a man wearing an “All In” Cleveland Cavaliers shirt begin to dance to “I’ve Had the Time of My Life,” mimicking the moves Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze made famous in Dirty Dancing, as a Cavs game plays on TV in the background.

Then, the woman removes her apron, revealing a Bulls shirt underneath. Her partner sees the shirt, gets upset, and throws her away from him and onto the floor. Looking over and down at her, he says with anger and disbelief, “Bulls fan? I didn’t know you were a Bulls fan.” She is lying on the ground, in obvious pain, grunting and grasping her arms. Over the image of her writhing on the ground, the words, “All In” appear, accompanied by a voiceover that warns, “When it’s playoff basketball time, you have to be all in. Don’t make the same mistake she made.”

The final shot is of her next to the man on the sofa, his arm wrapped around her shoulders as she holds an ice bag to her injured head. Her Bulls shirt is gone, replaced by one supporting the Cleveland Cavaliers. He looks at her and says, “I thought you were all in.” She replies, “Well, I’m all in now.” Gesturing to the screen with the hand not holding the ice, she says, “Let’s just watch the game.” The final image is a close up on the man’s satisfied face as he says, “Go Cavs.”

This video, which spread like wildfire across social media last week, was just the latest example of the way organizations continuously downplay the impact of domestic violence and rape culture. In turn, this betrays how little we as a society care for, or even think of, victims of interpersonal violence.

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The video, a parody of a United Healthcare commercial in which a couple has a moment of miscommunication and a failed lift before ending up injured on the floor, was shown on the Cavaliers arena’s Humongotron: a “four-sided scoreboard,” according to the team’s media guide, that “is the largest center-hung screen in any arena in the country.” The screens are all high-definition, and “are tilted and uniquely curved to provide optimal viewing angles for all fans in the arena.” In other words, if you were in view of the Humongotron that night, you saw the video.

And that video, unmistakably, portrayed abuse: The woman acquiesces to her partner’s demands because he beat her up and intimidated her into it. The final image is the abuser smiling over his win.

After it was roundly condemned on Twitter and across the web, the Cavaliers released a statement the next day that read in part:

While the video was not intended to be offensive, it was a mistake to include content that made light of domestic violence. Domestic violence is a very serious matter and has no place in a parody video that plays in an entertainment venue. We sincerely apologize to those who have been affected by domestic violence for the obvious negative feelings caused by being exposed to this insensitive video.

But in order for this video to get made, someone had to think of the concept. The set had to be created, actors cast, parts learned. Visual had to be filmed, the entire thing had to be edited down, and graphics and voiceover had to be added. To say that it was simply a “mistake” is to downplay and nearly erase the amount of approval that had to happen for that video to get made. It did not “whoops!” into existence.

The people behind that video did not accidentally show abuse in its full form; if anything, they had too good an idea of what domestic violence looks like for it to be a mistake. It’s a near-perfect rendering of the cycle of abuse. That no one flagged this as a problem in a parody video played during an NBA game reflects how members of the public tell the story of abuse more often from the perspective of the abuser than the victims. This means many don’t see the violence present in media at all, and they most certainly don’t stop to consider the portrayal of or impact on victims.

When bad marketing and public relations incidents like this happen, many people ask, “How did all those people who OK-ed it along the way not say or do something to stop this? How did everyone miss this red flag?” We saw the questioning after the Cavs video aired. But there was even more of this commentary only a week earlier when a horrible Bud Light , titled “Up For Whatever,” led the company to put labels on its beer bottles that read, “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night. #UpForWhatever. The perfect beer for whatever happens.”

“No Means No” has been the most recognizable phrase associated with anti-sexual assault work for decades now, and so when people are trying to determine if a sexual assault occurred, one of the first and most frequent questions asked is, “Did you say ‘no’”? The implication there is that if you didn’t say “no,” then consent existed; this very problematic framing is why “yes means yes” campaigns are becoming more popular. In many cases, the victim and/or perpetrator being drunk complicates the understanding of boundaries and the presence or absence of consent. So for Bud Light to put on its labels that its beer will “remove ‘no’” from someone’s vocabulary in the midst of this longstanding, well-known cultural context was irresponsible, at the least. The criticism of the label was widespread; even a Fox News contributor referred to the label as “rapey.”

This reactive questioning seems useless in the long run, though, given that victims or people advocating for them apparently have to be the ones to speak up in order to even force the questions. The change needs to happen on the front end before any of these messages make it to the public. Otherwise we will remain in this same cycle.

On the May 3 episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver suggested a reason for how those words ended up on the Bud Light bottle, despite going through five levels of approval. Each of those levels, his joke went, consisted of a white dudebro wearing a polo shirt (some with their collar popped) who looked like he just stepped out of a fraternity house, saying “Yeah boy!” or giving the idea the thumbs-up.

The bit worked so well because that is what most of us imagine the process is actually like: A bunch of men without a concern for anyone but other men, who have an idea of rape culture but just don’t care about participating in it. We are right to imagine this, too, given that only 3 percent of all creative directors are women. We also come by our belief because companies and organizations continually fail on this topic; Bud Light had just taken heat for encouraging sexual assault with its Up For Whatever campaign in March, when it tweeted on St. Patrick’s Day that it was okay to pinch someone who was not “#UpForWhatever.”

This could be an unfair assessment, though. Women do make up 60 percent of the public relations workforce, though men dominate the top-level positions in that field. Compared to other professional sports, the NBA does the best overall job of including women within the organization and on teams; it’s a low bar, but they still jump over it. In the end, the problem, as it is, is systemic, which means no one is immune from participating in the myriad ways we sanitize and excuse violence.

We, as a culture, approach issues of interpersonal, domestic, and sexual violence most often from the perspective of the perpetrator. No one who created that Bud Light label or that Cavs video was thinking about the people against whom violence is done. The Cavaliers noted in their statement that they made light of domestic violence and that in doing so, caused “obvious negative feelings” for people who have been affected by domestic violence. Like the Cavs, Bud Light pulled the label in response to the criticism and issued a statement saying its “message missed the mark, and we regret it. We would never condone disrespectful or irresponsible behavior.” Except, well, it did do just that. And based on what we know about beer companies and their marketing campaigns, it’ll probably do it again.

Here’s the huge breakdown in these marketing and public relations failures: No one cares about the victims. That is why, when cases of violence arise, we are obsessed with determining whether it happened at all—as a society, we err on the side of believing the victim to be lying rather than someone to be an abuser. This is why media outlets write sympathetic stories about abusers, even when their violence is horrific. It is also why there is always inevitably a push to move on, move forward, move past the violence as soon as given the chance to do so.

And we live in a society that does not need even one more reason to remind abusers that we don’t care about their violence and that we don’t see their victims. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey from 2010, “More than 1 in 3 women (35.6%) and more than 1 in 4 men (28.5%) in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.” The 2013 National Census of Domestic Violence Services says that in a single day, domestic violence programs in the United States provided services to nearly 67,000 people, and that “local and state hotlines answered 20,267 calls and the National Domestic Violence Hotline answered 550 calls, averaging more than 14 hotline calls every minute.” The National Domestic Violence Hotline states that “On average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States—more than 12 million women and men over the course of a year.”

In a perfect world where our society took this kind of violence seriously and actively worked to dismantle the cultural structures that prop it up, there would be few victims. That is the ideal. Outside of that pipe dream, here’s a simpler one: It would be nice if there was always someone in the room to remind everyone that a victim of the violence they are portraying will undoubtedly witness their product, and their interpretation should be considered.

That this does not happen is not just a sports problem (though it is that, too, but only in the way that sports are a microcosm reflecting ourselves back at us). This is a problem with a culture that does not care about victims and that tolerates—even sanctions and encourages—abuse. We are a culture who privileges the perspective of abusers. That is most evident in moments like these, when we find ourselves asking, “How did so many people approve this ad, this label, or this video?”

The night the Cavs showed the video in the arena, statistics tell us that the odds were high that a woman was sitting next to her abuser, their shoulders or knees probably touching. We can imagine her turning her eyes to the Humongotron upon hearing the first bars of “I’ve Had The Time of My Life.” Then she would have seen a scene unfold onscreen that probably would have caused her back to stiffen, shifting away from her partner as she recognized too well the dynamic she was seeing. And then she would have had to watch and listen to the people around her laugh and perhaps even cheer the satisfied smirk of the man at the end of the video as he said, “Go Cavs.”

Then she might have looked over at her partner, her abuser, and seen him, a dedicated Cavaliers fan, enjoying that video. He, too would have recognized the dynamic—but for him, the message he received would have been “Yeah boy!,” with a double thumbs-up from the Cavs. Neither one would have thought they were looking at a “mistake.”

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