Jun 15, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith before game five of the 2014 NBA Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Was Stephen A. Smith really wrong?

ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith has been suspended for his controversial comments on the Ray Rice domestic violence scandal.  Smith made reference to women not doing something to provoke violence against them, and it set off a wave of debate across social media and the press.  But was Stephen A. Smith really wrong in what he said, or just wrong in how he said it?

Here’s the part that touched off the controversy:

“In Ray Rice’s case, he probably deserves more than a two-game suspension, which we both acknowledged. But at the same time, we also have to make sure that we learn as much as we can about elements of provocation. Not that there’s real provocation, but the elements of provocation.”

Elements of provocation are debatable, because it’s not always physical violence that can provoke someone.  Sometimes a person’s words can provoke violence against them, such as a person using a racial slur, or some other form of verbal slight.  But even in those cases, physical violence in retaliation is not legally justified.

But if a person is physically attacking you, then legally you have the right to defend yourself.  However, that doesn’t mean you are justified in becoming the aggressor in retaliation of the attack.  Just because you were provoked doesn’t give you the legal right to assault the person who provoked you.

In the case of Ray Rice if his wife was assaulting him, then he was justified in defending himself.  But surely he could have restrained her without striking her.  Try to restrain her from hitting you, but once those elevator doors open then you get as far away from that person as you can so the violence doesn’t escalate any further.

Now I seriously doubt that Ray Rice would report to the police that his wife assaulted him.  That doesn’t sound like a very macho thing to do coming from a big time professional athlete.  I get that.  And maybe this type of physicality is an acceptable part of how Rice and his wife communicates between the two of them.

But if your partner can’t express themselves without resorting to hitting you, then that doesn’t sound like a relationship worth the risk of being in.  Because eventually one or both of you will either end up in jail, seriously injured, or worse.  You can’t control another person’s actions, but you can certainly control your own.

You can leave.  So elements of provocation only matter if you allow yourself to become provoked.  So in that regard, I think Stephen A. Smith is wrong.



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