Seeing is Aggrieving: Ray Rice, Domestic Violence, and the Power of Video
Last month, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for two games due to a domestic abuse incident involving Rice and his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer (they have since married). “Incident” doesn’t really do the event justice: Rice knocked Palmer unconscious in a casino elevator, then dragged her limp body out while spectators watched. Security cameras captured the latter part; TMZ predictably obtained the footage and slapped on the Internet for all to see.
Many were justifiably outraged with the mere two-game suspension levied by the commissioner. So much so that Goodell — never one to second-guess his disciplinary decisions — admitted a few weeks ago that Rice’s punishment was inappropriately light and announced new mandatory six-game suspensions for first-time domestic violence offenses and lifetime bans for second offenses (although an examination into the language suggests that there’s a whole lot more wiggle room there than the league would have you believe).
Earlier today, TMZ released previously unseen footage showing the actual altercation. I’m not linking or embedding it here. A jacked running back viciously punches a 100-pound woman so hard that her head bounces off an elevator railing. It’s disgusting. What difference does viewing the footage actually make in that scenario?
Apparently, quite a bit. The Ravens released Rice at 2:30 Monday afternoon and the NFL suspended him indefinitely, effectively ending his career. He will not be paid any of the remaining money owed on his three-year deal. That security footage cost Rice his livelihood. I say “video,” not “act,” because the NFL made it clear that Rice would suit up against Cleveland prior to this video leak. The league and the Ravens - and many sports media members - understood that Rice abused his wife and took no public issue with him playing football after two weeks. Six hours after TMZ made the video public, Rice was done. Every party involved was dunked in shit and sent home without a shower.
Situations like these touch on all my interest points: sports, social issues, hypocrisy, power dynamics, and modern media coverage. My first reaction was incredulity: why does seeing it happen increase the outrage from “two games isn’t enough” to “he should be blackballed from the league immediately?” The same people now clamoring for massive penalties didn’t hold this position 24 hours ago despite knowing that Rice did exactly what the video shows him doing. There’s something repugnant about the idea that domestic violence less acceptable/more objectionable when we have images to go with a description.
Then again, we’re human. Moving images have power. Donald Sterling was caught on tape making despicable remarks about minorities and became a national pariah. Fellow NBA owner Bruce Levenson announced Sunday that he will sell the Atlanta Hawks due to a racist email he sent in 2012. That happened 24 hours ago, and it’s not even front-page news on ESPN.com anymore. The difference? We haven’t read Levenson’s email.
Most non-football fans have never heard of Greg Hardy, the extremely talented Carolina Panthers defensive end who had 15 sacks and made the Pro Bowl last season. The fact that you know so much about Rice and so little about Hardy is odd considering he was convicted on two counts of domestic violence in July. And by “assaulting a female,” I mean he threw his girlfriend onto the floor and into a bathtub, strangled her, threatened to shoot her, and shoved her onto a bed covered in assault weapons. Not to be outdone, San Francisco defensive lineman Ray McDonald started off the month by getting arrested and charged with felony domestic violence.
Did I forget to mention that Hardy and McDonald both started for their respective teams on Sunday? Because that happened.
Despite being convicted, neither the NFL nor the Panthers have suspended Hardy, likely because he’s appealed the decision. Niners head coach Jim Harbaugh - who has a stated no-tolerance policy against domestic violence - apparently tolerated it just enough to ensure McDonald suited up against Dallas. There is no word as to when or if either of these players will face suspensions.
Ranking domestic violence offenses is the Internet’s lowest intellectual exercise. These are all abhorrent. It is interesting to note the wrath directed toward Rice’s offense compared to Hardy’s and McDonald’s, though. The lone differentiator appears to be the existence of video evidence.
Most everyone would agree Rice deserves a far harsher punishment than the one he originally received. As a Ravens fan, I didn’t want this carbon-based dumpster wearing the uniform of the team I support for a dozen reasons, and I’m glad he’s gone. Yet the way the NFL and the Ravens went about this makes me uncomfortable. In attempting to cover its own ass, the NFL took a page from the NCAA’s PR handbook. The league issued a statement this morning contending that they never saw the video prior to issuing the two-game suspension, a claim that contradicts earlier reports by league beat writers and insults anyone with a functioning brain stem. The league then used the outrage for cover, throwing an unpopular player to the Twitter wolves in an attempt to mitigate their atrocious stance toward domestic violence. WE HAVE EXORCISED THIS DEMON! ALSO, DON’T FORGET TO CHECK NFL.COM TO SEE HOW YOUR FANTASY TEAM IS IMPACTED BY THE RICE DISMISSAL! Meanwhile, Hardy, McDonald and other alleged and convicted domestic abusers remain on rosters. The Ravens and the NFL aren’t courageous. They’re slimy survivalists who would kick an infant down a spiral staircase if it meant they stayed in business for another minute.
This outcome is both fair and unfair to Rice. The man punched his wife in the face, full stop. Serious actions bring with it serious consequences. A two-game suspension does not fit that description. Righting a wrong - even in the NFL’s pathetic, self-serving manner - is still righting a wrong. Don’t want to lose your career? Then don’t fucking hit women. Pretty simple. There will be no tears for Ray Rice.
On the other hand, something stinks about a massive corporate entity taking advantage of an unpopular employee with no support or representation to better their tattered, self-destroyed image. As much as you might hate the guy, there’s a case to be made that he deserves a defense. The NFL players’ union — the organizing body created to support players against the league and team owners — has thus far exhibited no signs that it wants to get involved on Rice’s behalf. Understandable. But they should be concerned that this result consolidates even more power into the hands of a commissioner that’s nearly a despot already. Arbitrarily banning an unpopular player due to public outcry over a video is an incline made from ball bearings and motor oil. What happens the next time evidence — video or otherwise — shows that the NFL erred in judgment?
Time will tell. All we learned after this clusterfuck that you can still hit a woman and play in the NFL, just as long as you do so off camera.
Brian Byrd doesn’t have anything clever to say here today. Follow him on Twitter.