If you’re looking to professional sports to provide justice for the wrongs you think need to be righted, find a different hobby. Professional sports doesn’t exist to bring you anything more meaningful than the highs and lows that accompany victory and defeat. That said, it still provides an enormous capacity to fail you when you need it most.
The latest but certainly not the last case in point was NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s rather lightweight two game suspension handed down to Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for domestic violence against his fiancée, now wife, Janay Palmer.
Rice and Palmer were in an Atlantic City casino for fun and games when a domestic dispute turned horribly violent. According to reports, both Rice and Palmer struck each other. But you don’t need to speculate who came out of that fight unscathed, at least physically. The video tape is crystal clear. Rice was forcibly dragging a limp Palmer by her hair out of an elevator following whatever took place behind those metal doors.
Physical violence against women is nothing new among NFL players. The San Diego Union-Tribune maintains a database of all NFL players arrested since 2000. You could review it if you have the time but suffice it to say that nearly every team in the league has had a player charged with domestic violence since 2000. And that’s just the recent history. Cleveland Browns’ fans with a memory can recall the number of run ins Jim Brown had with domestic violence during and after his career (with all charges either eventually dropped or resulting in his acquittal). What set the Rice situation apart in the public conscious was the videotape. It’s one thing to read about a player dragging an obviously injured woman around but a whole other matter to actually see the horror on continuous loop.
The incident gave Goodell and the NFL a chance to do two things. First, he could take the most public stand possible against the NFL’s unfortunate history with domestic violence. Second, he could send a message to all of the other players that violence against women in any form is now a zero tolerance offense that will threaten your livelihood. And in some fashion Goodell did both by even bothering to punish Rice at all. But what Goodell also did was place the penalty on a spectrum that’s hard to fathom—less than smoking marijuana, slightly more than wearing non-league approved cleats. When Goodell had the power to do all he could he opted instead to do the least he could and keep a straight face.There are plenty that would argue that Rice should have been suspended for a year. There are plenty of others that would argue that a player smoking marijuana merits a 4-game suspension so at the very least, the very least, a player channeling his inner caveman dragging around his property by the arm ought to suffer the same consequence.
I’m not sure exactly what the right penalty should have been. What I am sure about is that this penalty doesn’t feel right. A two-game penalty tells you that the NFL sees other offenses as far more serious than those involving its players hitting women. Just ask the New Orleans Saints players accused of participating in a bounty system against other players in the league. But more to the point, it also offers absolutely no deterrent to the next offender. A season long suspension clearly would. A half year suspension just might. And in the end, isn’t that at least part of the purpose of issuing a penalty? Shouldn’t the impact it will have on deterring similar conduct be taken into account?
Let’s go back to the aforementioned New Orleans Saints bountygate as a proxy. It wasn’t domestic violence but had similar attributes in that involved NFL players and coaches sanctioning or participating in specific conduct meant to injure another. Goodell leveled significant penalties, suspending head coach Sean Payton for a year, indefinitely suspending another coach and issuing minimum 6 game penalties to others. Goodell also suspended one player, Jonathan Vilma, for a year. Three other players were suspended for a range of between 3 and 8 games. In every case players and coaches suffered more significant penalties than Goodell issued against Rice. (It’s worth noting that the sanctions against the players were overturned by Paul Tagliabue, who was hired as an arbitrator. Tagliabue found that they engaged in the conduct but placed the blame on the coaches for incentivizing them to do so.)My guess is that Goodell sees the distinction between the bountygate situation and Rice’s as a matter of one threatening the integrity of the game and the other a singularly personal matter. But can that dichotomy alone explain the massive difference in Goodell’s thinking, especially when once a penalty is issued the outcome of a game, in this case a future game, is potentially altered?
If Goodell really is parsing these situations that closely then he is losing sight of the reason he’s taken such a strong stand on personal conduct issues in the past. Maybe Goodell felt chastened when Tagliabue overturned the penalties on the bountygate players, but that’s hardly a reasonable excuse.Nothing gets done in a vacuum and I suspect Goodell levied a penalty that he knew Rice would not appeal without looking like an even bigger idiot. I’m sure, too, that Goodell had to balance the inevitable outcry from the union had he levied a penalty with real sting. Goodell, as commissioner, is as much a politician as an executive.
But not every incident calls for a political solution. Sometimes a line has to get drawn and let the consequences flow from that. The players’ union is like the NRA. There is no penalties on its members that they’d ever agree to on the record. Besides, their interests are not at all aligned with Goodell’s. He has to protect the integrity of the game and all that it stands for. The union, particularly this union under the misguided leadership of DeMaurice Smith, cares not a whit about the good of the game, only the good of the dues paying members. Given that, Goodell’s thought process should have been first and only to do the right thing. Instead he looked to do what was expedient, what would make his life easier.It would be interesting to understand Goodell’s actual thinking but he’s taken the coward’s approach and gone radio silence, allowing the furor to dissipate. It hasn’t yet. At some point, maybe at a press conference during Hall of Fame week or some other low key moment down the road he’ll elaborate, but I doubt it will be much. He’ll say that the league took a stance by bothering to punish Rice at all and then dangle out there that reasonable people can debate the severity of the punishment. All true, technically. Practically, it’s a load of crap.
There’s just no sugarcoating the magnitude of Goodell’s misstep here. His supplicants in the media, like Peter King, will dribble out tidbits to suggest that Goodell tried to do the right thing by, for example, talking to the victim, getting her input, making sure her voice mattered. But in even making that gesture, Goodell conducted that meeting with Rice sitting right next to her, the dominator and the dominated. What exactly did Goodell think Palmer was going to say in that meeting?The culture of this country in these matters still tilts wildly in favor of the perpetrator. Rice was applauded when he walked onto the Ravens practice field the other day as if he’s some kind of hero to be honored for what exactly, not killing Palmer? Notably, in his press conference on Thursday, Rice was appropriately contrite and apologetic. It would have been more noble to have chastised the idiot Ravens fans that gave him the applause in the first place.
Victims of domestic violence, like victims of sexual assault and victims of sexual harrassment, on the other hand, face questions about their character and motivations, fair questions in the context of due process but certainly not the only or even the main questions to ask. And they’re also often put in the awkward position of feeling responsible for the ultimate punishment levied. That’s a lot to bear.Had Palmer, for example, been allowed to speak freely and confidentially, neither of which occurred here, she might have had a different story to tell. We’ll never know but it isn’t a stretch to suggest that Goodell, a lawyer by trade, knew exactly what he was doing by interviewing Palmer with Rice present. As it is, though, because Goodell and King and others dribbled out the information about her role in Goodell’s deliberations, a harsher penalty on Rice would inevitably brought a harsher scrutiny on her from all those Ravens fans who can’t stomach the thought of being without Rice for an extended period of time.
There is a war on women in this country and it shows no signs of abating. Goodell just contributed to the fray when he had a real chance, using this country’s most popular sport and his position in it as the ultimate bully pulpit, to emphatically declare that there is absolutely no place for domestic violence. Goodell had an obligation to think globally and instead deliberately thought small and in doing so called into question his ongoing ability to lead the sport.The fight for women’s rights will go on as it always done, by fits and starts. The inroads women have made in the last 25 years or so are impressive but for all the gains made it just takes an incident like this and the shocking outcome to remind us all that until we take care of everyone on the same footing we don’t really take care of our own.