When the news broke that Chad Wheeler, a then-offensive tackle for the Seattle Seahawks, had been arrested Jan. 23 for beating his girlfriend nearly to death, it was not a surprising story. It was heartbreaking and horrifying, but violence against women by NFL players has become uncomfortably common. A sport rooted in violence is bound to harbor violent individuals, but the league has proven time and time again that it feels no obligation to stand up for women or hold players accountable for their actions.
Wheeler was released by the Seahawks on Jan. 27 and charged with multiple domestic violence-related felonies, but he was released from jail on bail shortly after his arrest. The Seahawks and Wheeler put out statements addressing the incident, but both largely failed to take any accountability, emphasizing Wheeler’s mental health as a justification for his actions. Wheeler is bipolar, and while a manic episode certainly contributed to the abuse, approximately 2.3 million Americans are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and the vast majority of them have not beaten anyone nearly to death. Painting Wheeler’s mental illness as an excuse is not only wrong, but it is incredibly harmful to others who are diagnosed with mental illnesses by perpetuating the stigma that they are inherently violent.
It is also impossible to explore Wheeler’s case without unpacking the role of race. The survivor of Wheeler’s abuse is a Black woman, and Wheeler is white. That dynamic aligns with a long history of violence against Black women in America and the lack of accountability that white abusers face. Black women are approximately 35% more likely to be abused and 2.5 times more likely to be killed than white women. Allegedly, Wheeler attacked his girlfriend after she refused to bow to him, and he failed to call the police despite expressing to her later that he thought she was dead. Despite her statement to the court that she is unsafe while Wheeler is free, he was allowed to post bond.
The NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell have been completely silent beyond a meager statement that they are reviewing the situation. It is not the first time — and it won’t be the last — that the league has attempted to quietly sweep allegations of domestic abuse under the rug. Antonio Brown, who is currently facing an investigation for rape and was recently ordered to pay his accuser $100,000 for allegedly violating his confidentiality agreement, and Tyreek Hill, who has been investigated for domestic violence and child abuse, both played in Super Bowl LV. Kareem Hunt, who was cut by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2018 because of a domestic violence incident, was signed less than three months later to a multi-million dollar contract with the Cleveland Browns.
Wheeler has faced less public backlash because he is a white man and his victim was a Black woman. However, very few athletes of any race who perpetrate violence against women face any sort of real repercussions. Hill and Hunt, both of whom are Black, make millions of dollars. They are regularly talked and written about in sports media with no mention of their past violent behavior. They are famous millionaires, and the women they abused are left coping with the trauma. There have been widespread complaints on social media that domestic abuse allegations against Black NFL players have been over-covered, while Wheeler flies under the radar. The reality is that all allegations are painfully under–addressed, and people care even less about the allegations when the abuser is white.
The NFL has long had a domestic violence problem, and while the league has taken steps to put players through training and provide resources for victims, it still fails to hold players accountable, especially when those players are talented. Wheeler pleaded not guilty, and if he is not convicted, he might return to the NFL. Second chances and short suspensions are not acceptable, and the league should have a zero–tolerance policy — one incident should end a player’s professional football career. The league is sending a message to players that it does not value women’s safety, and that athletes can get away with abuse. If they continue on this path, the pattern of more and more women suffering at the hands of these athletes will never go away.