IN JULY, WHEN the NFL announced that it was suspending Ray Rice for two games for his February slugging of the woman who was his then fiancée, now wife, SI reached out to Chris Johnson, a former teammate of the Ravens' running back. Johnson, whose sister was murdered by her estranged boyfriend in 2011, knows all too well the horror of domestic violence, but he declined to comment. "Thanks for the opportunity," he texted. "But I'd rather speak on the difficult issue of domestic violence as a whole, rather than the actions of just one man."
This is an article from the Sept. 15, 2014 issue
Yet on Monday, after TMZ released security video of Rice cold-cocking Janay Palmer in an elevator at an Atlantic City hotel, Johnson could no longer hold back (see sidebar page 14). Johnson—like the NFL, like the Ravens and like the rest of us—knew what Rice had done long before that video's release. We also knew that commissioner Roger Goodell had been too lenient when he slapped Rice's wrist with that two-game ban. Indeed, last month, after the public outcry over the lightness of Rice's punishment, the league toughened its policy against domestic abuse, instituting a mandatory six-game ban for a first offense. Said Goodell of his handling of the Rice case, "I got it wrong."
And now his mistake has gone viral. The video was so shocking, so brutal and so repulsive that it intensified the reaction of Johnson and countless others who have suffered, directly or indirectly, from the scourge of domestic violence. Within hours of the clip's release, Baltimore had terminated Rice's contract, and Goodell had suspended him from the league indefinitely.
The suddenly and appropriately harsh justice underscored, after Rice's brutality, the other major problem with this saga: the NFL's troubling tendency to face problems head-on only after they've become threats to its carefully polished public relations machine. Neither the Ravens nor the league felt such steps were necessary in February, after Rice had been arrested for aggravated assault—charges were later dropped—and video surfaced of him dragging an unconscious Palmer out of that casino elevator. In fact, over the summer the team engaged in a campaign to rehabilitate Rice's image, an effort that included owner Steve Bisciotti saying, "No one outside, I've learned, can understand how we look at these guys as our sons and close friends as opposed to just employees," and a tweet following the couple's postsuspension press conference that remained on display until Monday afternoon: "Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident."
The suggestion that a victim of abuse would have anything to apologize for is disconcerting enough. But that tweet feels all the more cynical and outrageous if the team was aware of the video. As of Monday it was unclear if Goodell and his aides had seen the footage before TMZ posted it. If they did, their failure to come down harder on Rice before the clip became an Internet staple is shameful. If they didn't, the league is guilty at the least of some very lackadaisical investigating. The idea that the Atlantic City police department and TMZ could scoop the NFL's vaunted security apparatus strains credulity, especially considering the lengths the league seems willing to go to stamp out excessive end zone celebrations and the tiniest infringements of its sponsor-friendly uniform policies.
The league and the team shouldn't be alone in their embarrassment. The fans who enthusiastically cheered Rice when he came out for his first practice in July should be regretful, as should all the players and coaches who kept assuring us all through training camp that Rice is a great guy. An NBA owner's racist remarks draw unanimous outrage—and, in the case of the Clippers' Donald Sterling and the Hawks' Bruce Levenson, the loss of their franchises. But the physical abuse of a woman engenders none of the same anger. Not even close.
Until, that is, we're confronted with video evidence, starkly rendered imagery that leaves no room for nuance. "If there's anyway to open that case up and give this guy the punishment he deserves, it NEEDS to be done," tweeted Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton on Monday before Rice was released. Retired linebacker Scott Fujita tweeted, "I'm glad no one this morning seems to care about yesterday's games. This piece of s--- needs to be out of the league. Period." But what of the many players who suited up on Sunday who were fortunate enough to have dodged cameras when committing heinous acts? Where was the anger directed at, say, Ray McDonald, the 49ers' defensive end who is being investigated for beating up his pregnant fiancée? Would he have played against the Cowboys on Sunday, would he be collecting an NFL paycheck, if his alleged off-field aggressiveness had been caught on tape? Images are everything, it appears.
The league's handling of the matter shows how much more education is necessary on the issue of domestic violence, especially in the NFL, in which brutality is an essential part of the culture. "I think it's institutional," says Kim Susser, director of the Matrimonial & Family Law Unit at New York Legal Assistance Group. "It's the dynamics of being rich and powerful and in control and being violent all your life. But I don't think you can hang these kinds of issues on one thing."
The NFL can't be expected to divine the root causes of domestic violence—but it should be required to deal with players who commit such acts long before winds of public opinion are blowing in its face.
By cutting Rice, the Ravens compensated in part for the offensiveness of their previous handling of the issue. Seeing the video apparently had the same effect on Baltimore's front office as it did on the rest of us. It made what was already obvious all the more real and inescapable. Rice could not have known that when he struck his fiancée that night in February that it would one day cost him his job. It's fitting that the video ultimately brought him down by giving the Ravens what they needed—a jolt of reality.
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Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident.
@Ravens May 23
That man should be thrown out of the nfl and thrown into jail. Shame on those deciding his punishment. Smh
@MrKnighton2u Sept. 8
Key line from Bisciotti: "How sad we all are that he tarnished his image." Not that he, you know, punched out his fiancée.
@emmaspan Sept. 8