The Super Bowl Of Domestic Violence

IF YOU watch NBC's Super Bowl broadcast closely, amid the clutter of ads hawking Gillette razors, Nike sneakers and the like, you'll see one that isn't selling anything.

It's a public-service spot, with a simple message, aimed at men: Beating your wife or girlfriend is a crime.

The ad should offer some solace to those who run shelters for battered women. Assuming they're not too busy to see it. Super Bowl Sunday is, after all, their worst day of the year.

For too many households, the violence of football's most-watched game spills from the gridiron into the home. The Super Bowl brings together many activities that can "trigger" a man predisposed to battering: intense viewing of sanctioned violence, heavy drinking, betting.

Women's shelters report big increases in calls for help on Super Bowl day. This year, some shelters may double their staff to prepare for the influx.

To say "Super Sunday" is a bad day for domestic violence is saying a lot. Consider what a "normal" day is like.

-- An American woman is beaten in her home every 18 seconds.

-- Each day, 3,000 domestic-violence crimes against women are reported; as many as 10,000 more go unreported.

-- Each day, domestic violence sends more women to emergency rooms than any other cause - more than auto accidents, muggings and rapes combined.

If this sounds like a year-round national crisis, why hasn't the battering epidemic been presented as such in big news outlets?

To the men who've run Washington and the national media in recent years, the crisis in American homes is drugs. "If this is a war," declared NBC's Tom Brokaw on the subject of drugs, "we're all soldiers. Not a war that can be won with more money alone, or just tougher laws, or better treatment. This is a test of our national will."

Like good soldiers, national media have marshaled their considerable resources against illegal drugs. All that's been raised against domestic violence is a white flag.

A National Newspaper Index search reveals that for every article on domestic violence in leading dailies, there are eight on drugs. For every report on prevention of battering, there are 22 on prevention of drug use.

While journalists wage rhetorical war against the "drug scourge," language is much softer about batterers. Violent men are often written about in euphemisms - as participants in "a stormy relationship" or "a marriage gone sour."

From national media, one wouldn't know that more Americans die from beatings in the home than from cocaine and crack.

The media's drumbeat aids "war-on-drugs" legislation. By contrast, the Violence Against Women Act introduced by Sen. Joseph Biden - aimed at reducing domestic violence and sexual assault, and at providing services for survivors - receives little media attention.

Last year's Super Bowl on CBS featured graphic anti-drug ads. This year's broadcast on NBC will address domestic violence - thanks to prodding from women's organizations and the media watch group FAIR (with which we are associated). The anti-battering message may well "save lives," says Denver psychologist Lenore Walker, who has written two books on domestic violence.

"When people view violence, they can become inured. It becomes easier for them to commit it," Walker observes. "The answer is not to ban TV violence, but to talk about it, bring it into the open, to defuse the connection between seeing violence and acting it out."

Who better to bring such issues into the open than journalists?

Six years ago, Mother Jones magazine first linked the Super Bowl to domestic violence.

In 1990, Mike Capuzzo of the Philadelphia Inquirer examined the connection between viewing violent sports - football, basketball, hockey - and battering. (Watching nonviolent sports like baseball or tennis has no apparent impact.) He discovered that about 25 percent of the men seeking counseling to stop beating their wives had been involved in sports-related violence.

"Often whether a woman gets beat or not," said specialist Roberta Hacker, "depends on whether her husband's team wins or loses."

A chilling aspect of Capuzzo's report was a description of the style of battering: "The women say they are tackled, like in football, or he sits on top of her punching her repeatedly in the face, like a hockey fight."

On Jan. 31, the Super Bowl will come and go. Women's shelters will be busier than ever, and return to normal . . . with a woman beaten by her partner every 18 seconds.

Let's hope this year's Super Bowl wakes up national media to the epidemic of domestic violence.

Media Beat: The Times invites critiques of the performance of local and national media. Commentary and opinion on the media should be addressed to the Op-Ed Editor, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Phone: 464-2323.

(Copyright, 1993, Creators Syndicate, Inc.)