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August 04, 2014

Women are abused in sports every day. Just ask female sportswriters about the misogynistic comments they get from readers, or check with NFL cheerleaders whose teams pay them less than minimum wage, or talk to WNBA players like Brittney Griner about the slurs hurled at them by Instagram idiots. Listen—or, on second thought, don't—to knuckle-dragging talk-radio host Kirk Minihane in Boston, who called Fox broadcaster Erin Andrews "a gutless bitch" last week, and then, in an apology nearly as boorish, said if Andrews "weighed 15 pounds more she'd be a waitress at Perkins."

Maybe because it's so pervasive, this mistreatment rarely causes more than a day's outrage. It's impossible to address every sexist rant, to challenge every Neanderthal attitude. But when the verbal becomes violent there is the chance to draw a line. Last week the NFL fumbled that chance away.

That's the real shame in commissioner Roger Goodell's inexplicably weak punishment of Ravens running back Ray Rice for a domestic violence incident in February that left Rice's fiancée Janay Palmer, who is now his wife, lying unconscious outside an elevator in an Atlantic City casino. It's not just that the two-game suspension and loss of nearly $530,000 in salary was far less severe than penalties the NFL has handed out for marijuana use and other lesser offenses. It's the casual attitude about the assault coming from the commissioner's office.

Remember the way NBA commissioner Adam Silver's voice quivered with anger when he announced the banning of Donald Sterling for his racist comments? There was none of that from Goodell, just the release of a tepid letter to Rice that served as the commissioner's statement. Nothing in Goodell's words or actions conveyed a sense that he was disgusted. How is anyone supposed to believe that the league truly cares about the welfare of its female fans after this? Putting players in pink cleats during Breast Cancer Awareness month suddenly seems like cynical pandering.

Rice, who pleaded not guilty to a charge of aggravated assault, will avoid jail time and have his record expunged if he completes a pretrial intervention program, but that doesn't change the magnitude of an offense that should have drawn at least a six-game ban. Yet Goodell and other NFL personnel seem intent on minimizing it. "It's not a big deal," Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said after the suspension. "He's a heck of a guy. He's done everything right since. He [made] a mistake, all right?" To his credit, Rice has expressed remorse for his actions, but a "heck of a guy"? It's hard to believe anyone would be so tone-deaf.

From the beginning, the NFL and the Ravens have treated this not as an assault on a woman that needed to be addressed but as a public relations crisis that had to be managed. The decision to have Janay Rice sit beside her husband in front of a Ravens backdrop for a press conference after his arrest was clearly an attempt to repair their star running back's image, right up to her apology for what she termed "my role that night." Abuse victims shouldn't have to accept blame for anything, of course, and certainly shouldn't feel the need to apologize to the public.

Reportedly, one of the reasons for Goodell's lenience was that Janay met with the commissioner and interceded on her husband's behalf. If that did persuade Goodell, it's another sign of his lack of understanding. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of the dynamics of domestic violence knows that victims often defend their abusers for a variety of reasons, including fear. That Rice's wife spoke up in his defense should be considered in that context.

It's hard to believe that two years ago Goodell told CBS.com that "some of the numbers on DUIs and domestic violence [in the NFL] are going up and that disturbs me. When there's a pattern of mistakes, something has got to change." He's right. Something has to change, beginning with the attitude toward domestic violence in the league office. Another day, another example of a woman's mistreatment. It didn't end in that elevator.

Nothing in Goodell's words or actions conveyed a sense that he was disgusted by what happened to Janay Rice. Putting players in pink cleats for Breast Cancer Awareness month now seems like cynical pandering.

What should Ray Rice's punishment have been?

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