What is the proper response to Thiago Silva in the Ray Rice age?

According to a February 6, 2014, police report, Thiago Silva and his wife separated in December 2012, after a thirteen-year marriage. But they still lived together, and on January 30, 2014, his wife called 911 claiming she had been the victim of domestic abuse. When the officers arrived, she was “shaking and sobbing uncontrollably.”  She told the deputy they had been arguing about an extra-marital affair and Thiago “picked up a silver colored revolver, pushed her on to the sofa, pointed the firearm at her and told her that he was going to kill her.”  When she screamed, he allegedly covered her mouth, then put the gun inside.  The same day, she obtained a temporary injunction for protection.

Six days later, she called the police again, claiming he had visited her residence in violation of the no contact order, then left.  Next, he allegedly sent her a text message in Portuguese that stated, “I am gonna fuck you up and you are going to die.  I am going to hire someone to kill you and I am gonna move my girlfriend in.”  The officer took a sworn statement, but the Complaint doesn’t mention whether he witnessed or recorded the text message.

The next day, Thiago’s wife was training at the Popovitch Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Center at 7:44 p.m.  She saw Thiago pulling up to the building in his 2012 Dodge Charger, honking his horn.  According to the Complaint, she went out to speak with him to avoid a confrontation with Pablo Popovitch, who she was seeing romantically.  According to her, he was extremely drunk, pulled out a firearm and threatened to begin shooting everyone in the gym if Pablo didn’t speak to him.  There were 25 students in the building. Pablo allegedly came out and saw Thiago pointing the gun at his wife.  Then he allegedly threatened to kill both of them, Pablo ran inside, and Thiago left.

The Complaint describes three separate calls to the police, two allegations of threats via firearm, and 27 alleged victims if you count the students.  One day after the police report was authored, Thiago barricaded himself inside his South Florida residence. Several news affiliates had been reporting that Thiago was involved in an armed incident at Pablo’s academy.  A SWAT team arrested Thiago.

The UFC initially responded, “This evening, we were made aware of a situation involving Thiago Silva. We are in the process of gathering the facts and have no further comment at this time.”  But, the same day, the company terminated his UFC contract. At the time, his two charges for attempted murder were reduced by a judge to aggravated assault with a firearm.  He was also charged with resisting arrest and held without bond.  Dana White said Thiago would never fight for the UFC again.

Thiago sat in jail.  But just eight days later, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was dragging his unconscious fiancé out of an elevator in an Atlantic City casino. Rice’s behavior resulted in a two-game suspension, and an avalanche of public criticism.  He was never prosecuted for the assault.  But hours after TMZ released footage from inside the elevator earlier this week, the NFL suspended him indefinitely, and he was released by the Ravens. Despite the late suspension of Rice, the NFL is still being criticized for its initial leniency.  “It comes down to this,” said ESPN reporter Adam Schefter.  “If the NFL had seen that video and suspended Ray Rice two games it’s an embarrassment of the highest proportion. And if it didn’t see that video before, then it’s time to go back and revisit that.”

On September 4th, TMZ reported that all charges against Thiago had been dropped. According to the Broward County Attorney’s Office, “The victim was uncooperative, and investigators determined that she has likely moved out of the country.” Of course, there were at least two victims, and it was unclear how the office determined it could not proceed with the resisting arrest charge, and with the charge for aggravated assault with a firearm against Popovitch.

Just one day after the charges disappeared, the UFC re-signed Thiago Silva.  Dana White said, “When this thing went down, I said he’d never fight in the UFC again. When I watched it unfold on TV and heard of the charges, it didn’t look good for Thiago Silva. But he was acquitted of all charges. How do you not let the guy fight again?”

“He went through the legal process and came out of it untainted. He deserves to be able to make a living again. He’s back under contract.”

During a Wednesday interview on Fox Sports Live, White reflected on the Ray Rice saga.  “It’s a tough one. First of all the video is horrifying. Absolutely horrifying. You’re talking about a guy who’s been in the fight business since he was 19 years old. It is the most disturbing thing you will ever see. The thing that’s just as bad as the punch is that he shows no remorse after he does it. You know, if you did something in anger and you go, ‘Oh my god. What did I do?’ There’s none of that with this guy. I don’t know all the ins and outs of what Roger Goodell did or knew or how it was handled but it’s definitely bad. I can tell you this: I wouldn’t want to be Roger Goodell.”   

The question now is whether Goodell would feel any better about being Dana White.  Because some are considering his response hypocritical, considering his quick acceptance of Thiago after the prosecution terminated.

White explained, “If you believe in the process, if you believe in the legal process, they came, [police] arrested him and he wasn’t brought up on any charges.  Plus, I know a lot more of the story and what went on. If you take his side of the story, her side of the story, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but he went through the process and he wasn’t charged with anything. The guy should have the ability to make a living. If some tape surfaced like in this one [with Rice], but the police have already investigated this entire thing and they let the guy go.”

Just yesterday, Deadspin obtained a document explaining why prosecutors dropped the charges against Silva. And we know now that Pablo Popovitch wanted to pursue the charges.

The memo reads, “In late April, 2014, I received a call from Pablo Popovitch stating that he and Thaysa Silva wanted to make additional claims against Thiago Silva. During that phone call, I could hear Ms. Silva directing Pablo to ask me certain questions. When I asked to speak with Ms. Silva directly, she refused to come to the phone, at which point Pablo stated that he would ‘call Detective Tucker,’ and ended the call. Detective Tucker later informed me that she had in fact spoken with Ms. Silva and Pablo Popovitch regarding new allegations, however, they had refused to comply with her requests to provide necessary evidence.”

In May, Thiago’s wife voluntarily dismissed the civil Injunction for Protection against him. “On May 7, 2014, I received an email from Detective Tucker that Thaysa Silva had voluntarily dismissed the Injunction for Protection against Thiago Silva. I made several calls to confirm this information, but was unable to make contact with Ms. Silva. Detective Tucker also continued in her efforts to make physical contact with Thaysa Silva by visiting her home and the Popovitch Training Center. Again, these efforts were met with negative results.”

Then, it appeared she planned to leave the country.  “In early June, 2014, Ms. Silva hired local attorney, Stewart Valencia to advise her of her rights related to leaving the country, prior to the resolution of the pending cases. Mr. Valencia has confirmed that at that time, Ms. Silva emphatically stated that she ‘was moving back to Brazil, and was only in town to retrieve her personal belongings and her dog.’”  She left to Brazil on July 4th.

And so, the question left unanswered is why the Broward County Attorney’s Office refused to pursue the charges related to the other alleged victim and the charge for resisting arrest.  The decision seems bewildering given the seriousness of the alleged conduct, and the fact that Popovitch called the office requesting to make additional claims against Silva.  The situation resembles the criticism that is being levied against prosecutors in the Rice matter.

We may learn more about the case in coming days.  But in the meantime, Thiago Silva is an employee in good standing with the UFC.  And that isn’t sitting well with at least a portion of the public.

In my normal line of work, I have witnessed hundreds of civil order for protection hearings, and several criminal domestic abuse trials.  The civil counterpart is initiated by alleged victims, and it proceeds according to the victim’s discretion.  In my experience, victims in civil matters sometimes fail to appear for contested hearings.  Of course, the concern is that they are fearful to do so, and that their alleged abusers have influenced them improperly to end the proceedings.  In such cases, it is not uncommon for a hearing to be continued so that the victim has a chance to appear.  But ultimately, if the victim is unwilling to do so, it is not possible to proceed.

Criminal matters are different though.  Because they are initiated by a third-party: a prosecutor who files the charges.  In such cases, it is sometimes possible to proceed even without a victim’s cooperation.  Because the State has the power to subpoena witnesses, and even if a victim is hesitant to participate, he or she can be compelled to appear and testify under oath,  threatened with the prospect of spending time in jail.  Of course, the distinction is a little irrelevant here, because Thiago’s wife is no longer in the United States.  Then again, he did allegedly send her text messages.  It is unclear whether law enforcement ever had them or if the UFC ever saw them.  They also had Popovitch, the officers who witnessed him resisting arrest, and a school full of students who could potentially see beyond the glass front of the training center.

Aside from wondering how Thiago escaped prosecution, the immediate question is whether the UFC should have embraced him the day after the charges disappeared.

Thanks in part to the caught-on-tape assault by Rice, our collective conscience is bristling probably more than usual against actual images of domestic violence.   At the same time, we have traditionally shared a strong tradition for fairness and justice associated with our legal system.  That legal concept of being innocent until proven guilty has often spilled over into our real-life judgments about individuals who have been accused of wrongdoing.  We traditionally hesitate to punish a person at his or her place of employment, for instance, without proof of guilt.  For many people, the threshold for adequate proof is a successful prosecution.

But when our revulsion against abuse and our love for fairness collide, one of them often suffers for the benefit of the other.   In this case, Thiago’s alleged behavior is especially offensive.  His wife says he held a gun in her mouth and threatened her life several times.  If true, his behavior is even more alarming than the attack by Rice. And so, some of us will naturally favor our desire to atone frightening violence at the expense of our traditional concept of fairness to the accused.  After all, we don’t want an abuser to walk free.  We don’t want victims to have to flee the country.  And we don’t want our favorite sports organization to embrace violent offenders.   

Whether or not that response is correct, it is a real problem for the UFC.  And if the company wishes to avoid a public perception problem, it has to somehow acknowledge that widespread reaction.  Unfortunately, the UFC embraced Thiago just one day after the Broward County Attorney abandoned the legal proceedings.  In doing so, the UFC seemed to embrace the concept of fairness at the expense of a concern for the victim.  And our peaking state of cultural revulsion against domestic violence was left unaddressed. The reality is that Thiago might be guilty or he might not be.  But in the wider public context, the potential for his guilt is probably instinctively deemed greater because of the nature of his profession.  After all, he fights for a living.

That is the real problem here.  In a sport that is violent by nature, the UFC cannot afford any public perception that it doesn’t take domestic abuse seriously.  That should be plain now, considering the ongoing criticism that is being leveled at the NFL.  Should Thiago be allowed to fight?  I don’t know.  But it seems that something more could have happened between the time of his release by prosecutors and the time of his rehiring.  For instance, the UFC could have performed its own investigation.  It could have taken more time to deliberate about the important decision.  It could have at least created the public perception that the matter depended on its assessment of the true facts, and not merely on the judgment of a prosecutor’s office in Florida.

The UFC has Thiago now, and that probably means they’ve re-acquired an entertaining fifteen minutes here and there when he competes in the future.  But those brief potential fights may come at the expense of something much more valuable: the public’s perception of the sport.  Maybe they can solve the problem by being transparent about the serious internal investigation that took place at UFC headquarters before their decision.  But right now, it’s unclear if it ever occurred.

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