Ray Rice suspension: Is NFL really serious about domestic violence?

On Monday, after a video showing Rice punching his fiancee was released, the Baltimore Ravens cut the running back from their team and the NFL slapped the 27-year-old with an indefinite suspension.

Mel Evans/AP/File
Baltimore Ravens football player Ray Rice holds hands with his wife, Janay Palmer, as they arrive at Atlantic County Criminal Courthouse in Mays Landing, N.J., May 1. A video that appears to show Ray Rice striking then-fiance Janay Palmer in an elevator last February has been released on a website.

Two weeks ago, National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell said he had gotten the Ray Rice decision wrong and rolled out new standards against domestic violence. Now, faced with a new video showing the running back cold-cocking his fiancée in an Atlantic City elevator, some analysts say, it’s a chance for Goodell to make good on his words.

On Monday, after the video was released, the Baltimore Ravens cut Rice from their team and the NFL slapped the 27-year-old with an indefinite suspension. But indefinite isn’t the same as a lifetime ban, similar to the one National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver imposed on former Clippers' owner Donald Sterling after racist comments surfaced.

Some analysts suggest the moment is right for the NFL to take on the issue of domestic violence – but others argue the organization would rather tackle just about any problem than the image of its players hurting women.

“This may be a great platform for the NFL to address an important issue, but it is probably one that the league probably doesn’t want to be associated with their game,” says Rick Burton, professor of sports management at Syracuse University in New York.

This stands in contrast to the NFL initiative to combat breast cancer, he points out, an issue that has very little downside. Players can sport pink shoes and mouth guards in solidarity with the fight to end the disease and nobody gets hurt or goes to jail. 

“With domestic violence, this issue actually involves current players, so the issue strikes much closer to home,” he adds.

Indeed, statistics show that in 2013, players in 21 of the league’s 32 teams were involved with domestic violence offenses.

If the NFL wants to move public perception on the issue, it needs to take more serious action itself, says Atlanta-based media strategist David Johnson.

“Failure to ban him for several seasons or life will just create the perception that the Ravens release was done cosmetically and he will be back playing ball before long,” he says via e-mail.  

“The NFL needs to send a clear message on this or suffer the consequences. People are looking for NFL leadership as we saw in the NBA which strengthened the NBA brand,” he adds, referring to the NBA’s swift action against Mr. Sterling in the wake of published racist comments. 

While Rice can apply for reinstatement, many working to change public perception of violence against women hope the media moment will contribute to genuine change. 

“Hopefully, this can contribute to a broader dialogue about violence against women,” says Dan Lebowitz, director of the Center for Sport and Society at Northeastern University in Boston, adding, “something positive can come from something very negative.” 

The termination and suspension cap a months-long drama that began in February, when a video surfaced showing Rice dragging the unconscious body of Janay Palmer from an elevator. Public outcry began almost immediately in social media, with people venting outrage on Twitter and Facebook. The NFL also received phone calls and letters.

Rice was charged with aggravated assault in March, but avoided prosecution by entering a pre-trial diversion program. If he completes it, all charges against him will be dropped.

Over the summer, the NFL imposed a two-game suspension on Rice, but the public outcry continued to build. 

In late August, Mr. Goodell issued the new policy on domestic violence. Any NFL employee – including non-players – will be suspended for six games after a first offense of domestic violence and be subject to a lifetime ban from the sport for a repeat offense. However, a repeat offender would be permitted to apply to the league for reinstatement after one year.

In a letter to the 32 team owners, Goodell wrote that he was taking responsibility “both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn’t get it right.”

Some suggest the moment is right for the NFL to tackle domestic violence.

“It is a clear message that behavior that is detrimental to the league and is illegal will not be tolerated,” says Eric Zillmer, athletic director and Carl R. Pacifico professor of neuropsychology at Drexel University in Philadelphia, via e-mail. “It is the right thing to do and the swiftness of all of this signals how important the NFL is taking this.”

The case also raises serious questions about the criminal justice system’s  role, says Florida criminal defense attorney Janet Johnson. Often in domestic violence cases, the case boils down to a woman’s or man’s word against her or his abuser. Victims have to be encouraged to come forward. 

“But if a guy caught on video knocking a woman unconscious to the floor isn’t being prosecuted,” she says, “Women will ask themselves, ‘What chance will I have if it’s just my word against his?' ” 

The criminal-justice system needs to come forward and make a statement that nobody is above the law, “and they will not get a free pass,” no matter who they are, she says.

Abuse is fueled by attitudes and beliefs, points out Tania Araya, program coordinator for the Family Violence Response Program at the Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. Whether we agree or not, NFL players are role models to our youth, she notes. 

“Young people take their cues from those they admire. These cues shape their attitudes, their beliefs, and their behaviors,” she says, adding that if the NFL won’t stand tall when one of their own behaves badly, “what message does it send to our children about their own behavior?”  

She suggests the NFL has a ways to go, citing a Tweet from the official Ravens Twitter account on May 23 sent out by the then-Mrs. Rice: “Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident.’’

“It is outrageous, irresponsible, and dangerous to imply that both Ray and Janay were responsible for this incident,” says Ms. Araya. “Until we fully hold abusers responsible for changing their behavior, this will continue.”

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