What began as one horrible incident which garnered our nation’s attention has quickly become a disturbing epidemic that the National Football League cannot seem to stop. Ray Rice is serving as the headliner of a parade of domestic violence offenses, involving at least five NFL players within the past six months. With each breaking news story comes a little bit more shock and awe, a little bit more disbelief that this is happening again. A video of Ray Rice knocking out his then fiancée in a hotel elevator, released by TMZ in early September, inspired outrage from the public and landed Rice an indefinite suspension from football. For a while, the media couldn’t cover the situation’s storylines fast enough, as there was seemingly no end to what was being uncovered. Now, new cases are coming out of the woodwork to join Rice in his shameful exposure.
As disgusting and infuriatingly wrong as each story is – Adrian Peterson being accused of child abuse, Greg Hardy’s severe beating of his girlfriend, Jonathon Dwyer being arrested for domestic abuse of both his wife and child – what is even more worrisome is that Roger Goodell and the NFL powers that be have yet to establish any authentic stance against domestic violence. These cases are certainly not the first of their kind, and they will not be the last, but right now, in a trying time for the NFL and the culture of professional sports, something needs to be done to put an end to the passive tolerance of domestic abuse among professional athletes. So far, the leadership required to make that happen has yet to be seen; so far, the NFL, as well as the justice system, has essentially turned its cheek once again, and that is unacceptable.
One of the first questions people have is: why was Ray Rice not more severely punished by the legal system? Well, because the legal system says he didn’t have to be. Rice was a first time offender. He also has the support of his wife, and victim, Janay Palmer. She likely would not have agreed to testify against Rice, which is consistent with the way she has defended her husband since the incident.
As a result, Rice was admitted into a pre-trial intervention program which, with counseling, would remove the charges from his record. Through the eyes of the Atlantic City Prosecutor’s Office, and through the eyes of the law, this was the correct decision. And yet, common sense would suggest otherwise. How can a man get by with a mere slap on the wrist for such a horrible offense, proven so clearly in multiple videos?
Put simply, the justice system failed to provide justice. According to New Jersey Judiciary data, from 2010 to 2013, less than 1 percent of all domestic violence cases are admitted to the pre-trial program Ray Rice was granted. Had his case been taken to trial and he were convicted, Rice would have faced three to five years in prison.
Even without Ms. Palmer’s agreement to testify against her fiancée, Ray Rice should have been prosecuted through trial for aggravated assault. He knew what he was doing in that elevator and it is clear he committed a crime. There is concrete video evidence of what occurred, and in this case something needed to be done despite the victim’s wishes to let her husband go unpunished. Someone from the Atlantic City Prosecutor’s Office or the District Attorney needed to step up and send the message that no matter who you are, no matter what social status or lifestyle you come from, domestic abuse is not okay.
Where the justice system came up short, the NFL had the opportunity to pick up the pieces, and it failed to do so. Roger Goodell originally issued Ray Rice a two-game suspension for what he did. Two games. From the day he received word of what happened, Goodell should have moved to make an example of Ray Rice. In a culture where professional athletes often get a free pass on too many offenses, Goodell had the opportunity to put his foot down and illustrate that the National Football League would not tolerate in the least any such offense. But he essentially said to Ray Rice, to the rest of the league, and to all the NFL’s fans that what Rice did was okay.
To put Goodell’s disciplinary priorities into perspective, take into consideration that Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon is currently serving a season long suspension (which has recently been reduced to 10 games, as opposed to 16) for testing positive for marijuana in his system. Rice struck and knocked unconscious his fiancée. Something along the lines of an eight-game suspension, or a season without pay would have been closer to appropriate. According to Roger Goodell, though, smoking marijuana deserves more punishment than beating one’s fiancée; and that is no message to send, especially for the league’s highest ranking official.
Goodell later admitted he was wrong, that “Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.” He has not. After already giving Rice his two-game suspension, Goodell announced that the NFL created a new policy for domestic violence cases: first time offenders would be given a six-game suspension; second-time offenders would be banned from the league. Yet, when the second video, explicitly showing Rice hitting his wife, was released, Goodell (who claimed he had not seen the video before) quickly announced that Rice was suspended indefinitely from the league. At the very least he could have maintained some amount of consistency with his own new policy, but instead it appears he panicked in the face of public outrage and hastily took away Rice’s livelihood. According to Goodell’s own rule, Rice should have been suspended for six games. Instead, the Baltimore Ravens released him, and the NFL took away his right to play at all.
As mentioned earlier, several other cases have emerged since the TMZ elevator video. Ray McDonald of the San Francisco 49ers actually faced domestic violence accusations before the Rice scandal, yet didn’t receive much attention from the league as it proceed through legal trials. What that would suggest is that it took a scandal in the national spotlight for Roger Goodell to even consider doing something about the issue of domestic violence in the league. And he still hasn’t done much!
Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers is also guilty of beating his girlfriend, and his case looks to be even more despicable than Rice’s, if you can imagine such a thing. Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings was indicted for child abuse after reportedly using an excessive amount of force while disciplining his son earlier this year. The only discipline either has received so far is deactivation from team activities, implemented by their teams, not by the league. It is hard to figure out why none of them have received the six-game suspension which Goodell himself put in place. Roger Goodell is continuously failing to send any kind of message to the players, and to all NFL fans, that domestic violence is something that receives zero tolerance.
In regards to the Ray Rice case, what makes Goodell’s actions so suspect is the advent of more recent reports that 1) a law enforcement official sent the video of Rice punching his then-fiancee to the NFL in April, and 2) multiple sources close to Rice have said that Rice told Goodell exactly what happened in June. If these reports are true, and they very much appear to be, then Roger Goodell, either intentionally or not, led a cover-up of what actually happened. In either case, whether or not he had seen the video, Goodell failed to implement the appropriate disciplinary action that this case demanded. Video or no video, it was fairly clear what transpired in that elevator, and in reality it is just as bad that Goodell waited until the video was made public to issue such a severe punishment, and one that is inconsistent with a policy he just recently developed.
In the weeks since, Goodell has created a new personal conduct committee, he’s brought in several women’s rights groups to help with advising on situations like these, and he has allowed an independent investigation of the Ray Rice story by former FBI director Robert Mueller. While these actions may be steps in the right direction, they are too little too late. Nothing substantial has been done. No meaningful change has occurred. Roger Goodell must either resign from his position as NFL Commissioner, or he must be fired. He cannot remain in charge.
As for Ray Rice, he was wronged. As difficult as it is to read that, it’s the truth. He was subject to an unfair, unorganized course of discipline which adhered to no clear set of rules or procedures. Though it does not make his actions okay by any means, Rice has said and done all the right things since the incident. He has expressed his regret and has apologized for what he has done. He has openly admitted to his bosses what he did. He has enrolled himself in a program to help him never make the same mistake again. It is easy to say this is all just a front to get himself off the hook, but Ray Rice has done and is still doing all he can to make amends. The NFL has taken away his career. Whether or not he regains the freedom to play in the NFL remains to be seen. If this were a world based solely on morals, no team would likely sign him were he to eligible to play again. But as the Ravens showed, NFL teams value their players as players. They did not part ways with Rice until the video showing him hitting his fiancée was made public, and they wouldn’t have had they not seen it. That’s the reality of professional sports.
This story would not have simply shrunk in the rearview mirror and eventually vanished, regardless of how it unfolded. Domestic violence has long been an issue in the NFL; Ray Rice’s story just made it impossible to ignore this time. But instead of handling it professionally, and allowing Rice and his wife to attempt to put this in their past and move on to a hopefully brighter future, Goodell has dragged the couple into an unwanted spotlight and forcibly held them there. Janay Rice has lashed out at the media, lamenting that such a personal struggle between her and her husband has been made into a national story, and you cannot blame her for being angry. She has now been wronged by both her husband, and the media for prolonging and intensifying her situation into a public spectacle.
What Ray Rice and these other NFL players have done is wrong. There is no excuse. They deserve to be punished; they need to be punished. The world needs to know that domestic violence is entirely and unequivocally intolerable. But Ray Rice was also wronged. In reality, Roger Goodell and the NFL powers that be are even guiltier than Rice and the others undergoing domestic violence charges for failing to make the necessary statement that what they did can never happen again without severe consequences. They deserve to be handed the punishment they are failing to administer.
by MATT SIMONS / sports editor