(Warning: The video above contains graphic content.)
It’s the first Monday night of the NFL season, everybody. Are you ready for some TMZ video?
Here it is: Ray Rice, punching his fiancée in an elevator. TMZ apparently timed its release to make NFL commissioner Roger Goodell look especially awful, and he does, but more important, he should feel awful. Goodell prides himself on being both businessman and sheriff, and this time, his own system beat him.
Goodell suspended Rice for two games a month ago. At the time, I wrote that I didn’t like the penalty, but I understood it. Rice’s case never even went to trial. He pleaded not guilty to a single count of third-degree aggravated assault and entered a diversionary pre-trial intervention program for first-time offenders. He had no known prior history of criminal or immoral conduct.
“I understand why people are a little sick today,” I wrote. “Maybe Rice deserved worse, based on what he did -- but even today, we really don’t know what he did, and unless Palmer says what happened, we may never know.”
Well, we know now. It’s there on video. We don’t know the context, but who cares what the context is? The video eliminates the possibility, however remote, that Rice was acting in self-defense or that any part of this was accidental. It makes Rice look so much worse than we even thought, and makes Goodell’s two-game suspension seem like a sick joke.
Goodell should do whatever he can to re-evaluate the Rice suspension. Changing the league’s policy toward domestic violence in the wake of Rice’s punishment was a much-needed step. First-time offenders will now receive a six-game ban, repeat offenders will receive a year-to-lifetime ban. But now he has evidence against Rice that he presumably didn’t have before. “We requested from law enforcement any and all information about the incident, including video from inside the elevator," the NFL said in a statement Monday, "that video was not made available to us and no one in our office has seen it until today.” If he can find any way to use that to add to Rice’s suspension, he should.
The problem with these kinds of videos is that they seem to tell us everything but usually don’t tell us enough. That was my issue with the first TMZ video, which showed an apparently unconscious Janay Palmer being dragged from the elevator. I thought I knew what it showed, but could we know for sure? This video is different. It gives us all the evidence we need.
Rice says he has learned a hard lesson, and he has the rest of his life to prove it. His instinct may be to say this incident should not define his life. I would argue: It absolutely should define his life. It should define how he conducts himself in and outside of his marriage. It should spur him to talk openly about what happened, and why -- more openly than he did in a staged and ultimately embarrassing apology a few months ago. He shouldn’t run from what happened. He can’t change it now, but he can change himself.
Goodell should learn some hard lessons, too. Like many people in power, he has spent a lot of time and effort accumulating more power. He is judge, jury and executioner in too many NFL matters, with too much latitude to do what he pleases. It sounds great until people point out that Josh Gordon is suspended for a year for doing what is legal in some states (inhaling marijuana smoke) while Rice got two games. Goodell can say he was trapped by the guidelines in the collective bargaining agreement, and that may be true, but who shaped those guidelines more than anybody else? Roger Goodell.
Athletes (and non-athletes) should learn that one burst of anger can cause unbelievable devastation, and can shape their reputation forever. Why wait for the volcano to erupt? Be pre-emptive. Get help before everybody knows you need it.
I’ve learned I should have closed my laptop rather than try to finesse my way through this one. I tried to understand Goodell’s decision, rather than have a knee-jerk critical response, and I did understand it in a vacuum. But I missed the bigger picture. This wasn’t just about Ray Rice. The commissioner had years to set himself up for this decision, and he set himself up to fail.
And we should all re-think how casually we treat incidents like this. Shortly before Goodell announced the original Rice suspension, ESPN happily included recording artist Chris Brown in its ESPYs program. Brown introduced himself with a big smile on his face as “America’s sweetheart, Chris Brown,” as though his history of domestic violence (and non-domestic violence) was so ha-ha funny.
Ray Rice’s case never went to trial, but America has reached a verdict. Strangely, Rice gets to sentence himself. I hope he commits himself to being a better man, and an honest advocate for victims of domestic-violence, for life.