Ray Rice and Domestic Violence: The NFL’s Many Mistakes

09/14/2014

I want to thank the NFL for offering a public service. This doesn’t happen often, so when it does, we really need to pay attention. Not only has the organization presented information on the serious nature of domestic violence (DV) but they’ve also provided a free lesson in why DV is usually just dismissed. I’m impressed they’ve managed to do both at once.

On February 15th, Baltimore Ravens running back, Ray Rice, was charged with simple assault-domestic violence for assaulting his then- fiancée, Janay Palmer, in a hotel elevator. For Rice, what really was bad was that it was caught on tape. If it hadn’t been, I can almost guarantee you that no one would have paid attention. However, it was, and on February 19th, TMZ Sports publicized the video of Rice dragging a motionless Palmer out of an elevator.

The video almost immediately went viral and I happened to see it at the time. The absolute cold indifference with which Rice dragged her body out of that elevator told me everything I needed to know about what happened and what kind of a man he is. Apparently, that was not enough for some people or, probably more accurately, they just didn’t care. This sort of thing happens every day and little is done. After all, it’s mostly a women’s issue, right? Those usually get swept under the rug.

But, since there was that pesky video, Rice and the NFL had to do something to appease fans. So, on May 23rd, both Rice and his now-wife Ray and Janay RiceJanay held a press conference in which she apologized for her role in the incident and he apologized to his bosses, his fans, the kids, and anyone who was affected by “this situation.” Please notice that Rice never once apologized to Janay. He apologized to her family but not to her. Some people may point out that we don’t know what he said to her in private. Maybe he apologized to her. Actually, I’m quite sure he did. He probably even went so far as to tell her that he would never do it again. That’s what they all say. My point is that he needed to send a message to the public that he was sorry that he hurt her and he did not. In fact, the only time I heard him take direct responsibility for his actions (there was a lot of “we” and “us”) was when he said the loss of his sponsors was on him. Got it.

On July 16th, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell met with Rice, Janay and several other individuals. A source reported that Janay asked Goodell not to harm Rice’s career or his image with the public with severe sanctions. She assured him that the incident in the elevator was the only time Rice had struck her. While that could be the case, it’s doubtful. Abusers rarely start with large incidents like that one and anyone who cared to research DV (you know, like the leader of a league that holds fundraisers for DV charities) would know this. But maybe that’s asking too much, for them to actually care.

Because they don’t. If you know anything about this situation, know this: they do not care. How do I know this for sure? Because of other DV incidents (which I’ll get to) and because of what happened next. On July 24th, Ray was suspended for two games for DV. Two games, that’s it. I might be relieved that it was addressed at all had Goodell not issued longer suspensions this season for smoking pot, taking Adderall, getting a DUI, illegal tattoos, dogfighting and eating a protein bar thought to be on the NFL’s approved list. Indianapolis Colts pass-rusher Robert Mathis got a 4-game suspension for testing positive for Clomid, a fertility drug that is commonly used with couples having difficulty conceiving.

To add insult to injury (literally), in late July, Ravens’ coach John Harbaugh said of the suspension, “It’s not a big deal, it’s just part of the process…I stand behind Ray. He’s a heck of a guy. He’s done everything right since. He makes a mistake, all right? He’s going to have to pay a consequence. I think that’s good for kids to understand it works that way.” Oh? I guess it’s ok for him to suffer a few financial penalties while battered women get the message that their pain is inconsequential and nothing much will change. Awesome.

After the 2-game suspension was announced, I’m guessing the NFL was surprised by the backlash that greeted such a light penalty. So, Goodell met with DV experts and crafted a policy of an automatic 6-game suspension for a first DV offense. I would be impressed that they were taking this seriously if I didn’t know about all the other DV violations that have occurred this season and gone unpenalized.

Arizona Cardinals’ linebacker Daryl Washington pled guilty to assaulting the mother of his child (she suffered a broken collarbone) and this spring the court gave him one year of supervised probation. He is not currently playing because he is under a year’s suspension from the NFL for violation of the drug policy but has yet to receive any sanctions at all for the DV incident. No matter what they say in public, this seems to be business as usual for the NFL.

A mere four days after the policy was announced, San Francisco 49ers’ defensive end Ray McDonald was arrested by San Jose police for allegedly beating his pregnant fiancée. 49ers’ coach Jim Harbaugh has talked tough about DV telling USA Today Sports, “There is no understanding for domestic violence. No understanding for striking or abusing a woman in any manner.” Great! Someone in a NFL leadership position is going to stand against DV! Oh, wait. McDonald started against the Dallas Cowboys and played all 60 snaps, more than any other defensive lineman. As one of his teammates explained, since there wasn’t a video of McDonald beating his fiancée, it is completely different. Oh, right, I forgot: it only counts if the public can see it.

Then there is Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy who was convicted by a judge in July of assault on a female and with communicating threats. The testimony of what he did is pretty awful. Hardy is asserting his right to be heard by a jury, so his legal punishment is currently on hold. In the meantime, neither the Panthers nor the NFL have issued any penalty. The NFL waived aside their new DV policy by stating, “The case has not been resolved by the court.” Huh. Interesting loophole.

I’m sure the NFL was sitting pretty, thinking it had headed off the worst of a public relations disaster when, unfortunately for them and for Rice (not to mention Janay for whom this has to be yet another horrible violation), a second pesky video surfaced. The new one released from TMZ Sports shows Rice and Palmer hitting each other before Rice knocks Palmer off her feet and into a railing. That was it for Rice. Game over because there was no way that could be lightly punished and not make fans furious. So, Rice was let go by Ravens and suspended indefinitely by the NFL.

If the whole situation wasn’t so tragic, what followed next could be considered entertaining. For example, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of watching the video for the first time, “It changed things, of course. You know, it made things a little bit different.” Really? What did they think happened in that elevator? Jon Stewart hilariously inquired about pixie dust. The true answer is that they knew all along what had happened but just couldn’t admit that they didn’t care. And they continue not to get it. Harbaugh went on to answer a male reporter’s question about his own pain in having to let Rice go (poor baby) and express his care for Ray and Janay as a couple. I heard a lot of “they” in his statement, in that he hopes they are working hard on getting past this (more on this in a minute).

Then there have been a rash of tweets from both former and current NFL players (ironically including receiver Chad Ochocinco, who pled no contest to head-butting his then-wife in 2012) angry about the initial 2-game suspension of Rice. Too little, too late, guys. I might have paid attention had you tweeted in February when reports of the incident first surfaced or even back in July when he received his 2-game suspension. But throwing a fit now seems too much like jumping on the bandwagon or trying to get the public to believe you all care. I don’t buy it.

As a family counselor, I have worked with couples experiencing domestic violence and I can tell you that it is never an easy or simple situation. Despite my snarkiness in this post, I truly do feel for both Ray and Janay because they’re in an extremely difficult situation and there are a lot of hard truths about DV that are being ignored. And honestly, that is my problem with this. The NFL had an opportunity to teach people about a serious and important topic and they dropped the ball. They could have done both public and institutional trainings about the cycle of abuse, anger management, respect for women (treating their cheerleaders right would be a good start) or any number of topics specifically designed to raise awareness and provide solutions for DV. But they didn’t.

They also could have made certain that the bulk of responsibility was placed squarely where it belongs: on Ray Rice. We didn’t hear that from anyone and we needed to. Sure, Janay has problems too (that’s another post) but Ray is the 212-pound person who hit a small woman so hard that she hit the elevator railing and passed out. Ray is the one dragging her unconscious body around with cold indifference. He is the one who has to do the work to get past this. They may have other unhealthy couple dynamics to solve but it is the violence that cost him his job. And not one person, including Ray himself, mentioned that.

The NFL had an opportunity to show that they have a sincere interest in eliminating DV by doing any of the above or, and this is the kicker, by crafting a policy against DV that is consistently applied no matter the star power of the player. But, as we have seen, they won’t even do that. Because they don’t care. So much for that public service.

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