As stunning as it might have sounded even yesterday, there was no way back for Ray Rice in Baltimore once the video showing him punching his future wife in that hotel elevator was released early Monday morning.
Rice is a full-fledged pariah now, and there are no long, slow goodbyes once you reach that depth in today’s 24/7 news cycle, a cycle driven to warp speed by social media. Once Rice started incurring the repudiation of current and ex-NFL players, with some even broaching the notion of boycotting any game in which he was allowed to play, the rest was all end-game logistics and deciding when to push the button on the press release.
Within hours of the video being widely viewed and setting off a new firestorm of protest, the Baltimore Ravens released Rice and the NFL suspended him indefinitely. And you almost had to wonder, what took so long?
So much for all the blather and expressions of loyalty from the Ravens to their veteran running back, after he was arrested on domestic violence charges in mid-February. Today all that stands is universal disgust with Rice’s behavior, contempt for the Ravens and the NFL for an apparent lack of due diligence that produced only a two-game suspension in the first place, and the stark reality that Rice’s once-stellar football career might have ended with that act of violence in an Atlantic City hotel.
After the shocking degree of his guilt was captured on camera, Rice needs to go away and he needs to go away for a good long time. Whether or not he ever plays football again, time will tell. But for now, Rice’s reputation will carry a stain that will be very difficult to remove in the eyes of some, and impossible to others. He will be the face that finally brought the issue of domestic violence to the forefront in the NFL and prompted the league to stop paying it lip service.
Rice is only 27, and while that’s getting a bit up there in years for a running back, someone might well grant him redemption and a second chance at his career next season or whenever he resurfaces. But for now, he’s radioactive, and deservedly so. His name has become synonymous with one of the uglier chapters in recent NFL off-field conduct.
I know one team who won’t ever be in the market for Rice’s services. Well, that is, if Jim Harbaugh remains with the 49ers. San Francisco’s head coach repeatedly has said anyone found guilty of domestic violence could no longer play for his team, thanks to the 49ers’ “no tolerance’’ policy when it comes to physically abusing a woman. Naturally the topic came up last week when 49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald was arrested and charged with domestic violence, a case that is still being determined by “due process,’’ another policy Harbaugh repeatedly cites.
It took him and his club a while, but Ravens coach John Harbaugh, Jim’s brother, is now on board with that policy, too. No matter how deftly Rice navigated the legal system in this situation, he has now been convicted by the tape. His punishment won’t be much of anything on the legal front, but he has been branded by his despicable actions that February night, and the whole prison-without-bars metaphor is somewhat appropriate.
The idea of getting it right has been a stated goal of late in the NFL office, but the league deserves no kudos for this latest and belated development in the Rice case. The NFL and the Ravens both apparently investigated this situation like they wanted it to just go away, but it wouldn’t. Somehow we’re asked to believe that the league and the team couldn’t get their hands on that surveillance video -- a notion I’m not buying -- and took Rice at his word when he described some milder version of events that took place in that elevator.
But the impact of the video was visceral and damning, and it changed the equation instantaneously. One minute the Ravens and the NFL thought they had the situation handled and contained, and the next minute, they had a toxic situation on their hands. Come Monday afternoon, they hastily dropped it and began the process of washing their hands of it. The scrubbing continues, no doubt.
Sorry, but you don’t get credit for at best getting duped, or at worst, looking for only the facts that supported an outcome minimizing the public relations damage to all concerned. The Ravens and the league badly tarnished themselves with this one. There’s no way around that, and no spin that will stick.
But let’s not forget, it’s Rice who ultimately bears the blame for this sordid story. He largely avoided any real penalty until Monday, and without any jail time served he’s still coming out way, way ahead. In the end, while the outcry over Rice’s actions in that elevator has been a constant for months, the reaction metastasized when everyone could see for themselves the violence he was capable of with Janay Palmer.
Today, that’s the image we see of Ray Rice. He put it on tape, and the tape got him noticed. But this time, that tape might well finish him as a football player.