Gridiron football running shy of tackling domestic violence

Ray Rice is the latest in a sorry line of players unable to control a runaway temper

Running back Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens addresses a news conference with his wife Janay at the Ravens training centre in Owings Mills, Maryland. Rice was involved in an incident with Janay at an Atlantic City casino. Photograph:  Rob Carr/Getty Images

Running back Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens addresses a news conference with his wife Janay at the Ravens training centre in Owings Mills, Maryland. Rice was involved in an incident with Janay at an Atlantic City casino. Photograph: Rob Carr/Getty Images


On the security cam, the Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice can be seen dragging his unconscious fiancéee Janay Palmer from an elevator at Revel Casino in Atlantic City. Her limp body appears almost lifeless and a man whose day job involves getting pounded by 20 stone behemoths is struggling to wrangle her legs out through the open doors.

Shortly after that footage was captured, Rice and a resuscitated Palmer were in a New Jersey police station, both facing assault charges. An evening that began with an engaged couple heading out on a date to celebrate St Valentine’s Day culminated in an incident that, almost six months later, continues to reverberate through American sport.

Last Thursday, the NFL suspended Rice for the first two games of the forthcoming season and fined him half a million dollars for his part in the fracas that left Palmer unconscious. Essentially, the scale of punishment demonstrated that the league’s disciplinary structure judges popping Adderall (the attention-deficit disorder drug that improves focus) before a game or smoking marijuana after it (many players argue this helps with the aches and pains) to be more egregious crimes than knocking a woman clean out. A strange kind of justice indeed that regards hitting a bong as deserving a lengthier ban than hitting a girlfriend.

If the ensuing public outcry was predictable, the NFL’s reaction was less so. It doesn’t seem to understand what all the fuss is about, believing Rice has been severely punished. One league official went on radio and declared the ruling sent other players the right message.

This type of myopia may explain why when the new season kicks off on September 4th,

about two-thirds of the teams vying to get to Super Bowl XLIX will contain individuals with domestic violence charges on their rap sheets. And they wonder why critics say NFL stands for National Felons League and one Californian newspaper even keeps a handy online database of player arrests.

In this particular instance, a lot of the anger towards the league and Rice stems from the fact so much of what has happened since the original incident has been alarming. On March 27th, a grand jury considered the evidence, dropped the charges against Palmer, and upgraded the case against Rice to aggravated assault, a more serious offence punishable by up to five years in jail. The very next day, the couple got married, bringing forward a scheduled summer ceremony by several months.

“How bad could the guy be if she went ahead and married him?” asked notorious right-wing talk radio host Rush Limbaugh the other day. “NFL, big bucks, fame, maybe worth a hit to the jaw?”

A few weeks after the nuptials, by which time Palmer had told prosecutors she no longer wanted the case to proceed, Rice pled no contest to a single charge of aggravated assault. This enabled him to avoid jail time by enrolling in a pre-trial intervention programme for first-time offenders that includes a period of probation and anger management classes.

He then called a press conference where he apologised profusely to the Ravens (but crucially not to Palmer) for his actions. As an attempt at rehabilitating his public image, it was, at best, ham-fisted, at worst, downright offensive.

“Failure is not getting knocked down,” said Rice that day, “it’s not getting up”.

That ridiculously inappropriate line wasn’t even the most disturbing aspect of the whole farrago. In a move that appalled victims’ rights advocates, his spouse, sitting next to him on the dais, also issued an apology of her own.

“I do deeply regret the role I played in the incident that night,” said Palmer.

Later, she accompanied Rice to a meeting with Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, where reports claim she pleaded with the self-styled “sheriff of the sport” to show leniency to her husband.

Domestic violence counsellors and commentators were aghast that, eschewing all normal protocol, the league allowed the victim to testify in front of her attacker and appeared to take that evidence into consideration. It was an ethical judgment so awry there have been calls for Goodell to withdraw the punishment, recuse himself from the case, and get the league to examine the episode anew.

Almost exactly two years have passed since Goodell announced the NFL was going to prioritise domestic violence because of the number of players being arrested for the crime. Just four months later, in an incident that showcased the problem at its most extreme, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend before committing suicide in the stadium car park.

Although domestic violence awareness is part of the rookie education symposium for all incoming players, there still seems to be a disturbing level of tolerance towards it, inside and outside the locker room.

Last Monday night, not long after ESPN’s Stephen A Smith apologised for saying women shouldn’t provoke their men into hitting them (he was later suspended for a week), the Baltimore Ravens held an open training session at M&T Stadium.

Plenty of fans wore Rice’s number 27 shirt and every time he appeared on the big screen, the crowd cheered loudly. At one point, supporters rose from their seats and gave him a standing ovation.

He responded by offering an “aw shucks” smile, giving a military salute and tapping his right hand repeatedly over his heart. A suitably troubling postscript to the whole sorry affair.

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