I am a Baltimore Ravens fan. There, I said it, and though I never thought that would be a startling confession, or even something I was apprehensive to tell people, it has become so. The Ravens have a checkered past in terms of dealing with legal issues (see a certain charging and later exonerating of a certain linebacker), but with the current state of the NFL, there may not be a team left that has not had a run-in with the public relations nightmare that comes with a player or official getting into trouble.
Most teams have had to deal with a player getting in trouble for using a controlled substance or even getting a DUI, which, when you really think about it, are pretty big misdemeanors that are just brushed off by a four game suspension. But I digress. In each of the past two offseasons, there have been crimes that have transcended the others in terms of scale.
Last July, former-New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was charged with the murder of friend Odin Lloyd, and was subsequently charged for his role in other murders. The league immediately suspended Hernandez when they were given the evidence, and the Patriots cut him as well. Hernandez will, in all likelihood, never play another down in the NFL, even if he somehow escapes multiple life sentences.
This past offseason, the microscope hit home for me. Ray Rice, a running-back who was one of my favorite players, was accused of hitting his fiancée at an Atlantic City casino. I did not believe it at first. Rice was a model player. He played the game the right way, gave back to charity- one that ironically was created to stamp out bullying in schools. Rice just seemed to have his head on straight, which was a welcomed occurrence considering the state of the league. Soon after he was accused, surveillance video came out of him dragging his unconscious then-fiancée Janay Palmer out of the elevator where the incident happened.
Instantly, everything changed. The charges were no longer just “he said, she said,” like many domestic abuse charges and trials are. There was now video evidence proving that Rice had, in fact, hit his fiancée to the point where she was unconscious. By the time the charges came out and the video was released, neither the NFL nor the Ravens had stepped up to discipline Rice. Many in the sports circles thought this was just to wait until all the information was released before they handed down their punishment, a usual practice for a sports league when dealing with this kind of situation.
After all the deliberation, the NFL came down with their discipline for Rice. Everyone, including myself, thought that he would at least get six games; a punishment that was severe, but not as severe as some, including myself, wanted but I’ll get into that later. The suspension was announced and the entire sports world collectively had their jaws drop. Two games. That was the punishment for a player who had beaten his fiancée, a man who punched the supposed love of his life in the face so hard that she was knocked out cold. Two games.
In comparison, those with knowledge of the League know that when a player tests positive for marijuana, for example, the minimum sentence is four games for a first offense. The fans and media were outraged. There was a press conference in Baltimore at which the Ravens offered their support for Rice and Palmer and the team seemed to stand behind their troubled star. The team could have added a team-sanctioned penalty on top of the league’s decision, but they did not. They chose to stand behind him, to offer their support to a man who victimized and abused his partner. A few weeks went by and the outrage was still there. In an obvious PR move because of the pushback, the league announced a sweeping reform on the punishment for domestic abuse: six games for the first offense and a lifetime ban for the second. Fans agreed this was necessary, but it still was not enough.
After this announcement, it was no longer the top story on ESPN, and other news outlets had begun talking about the upcoming training camps. It went back to being business as usual. The NFL season had started, and this was now at the back of everyone’s mind.
That is, until Monday September, 8, when TMZ released the video from inside the elevator the night of the incident. It was despicable. The video spread like wildfire on the internet, and in the early afternoon, the Ravens decided to cut Rice. Months after the initial reports and charges were filed, they cut him. It was a reactionary decision due to the release of the video. Soon after the Ravens cut ties with him, the NFL suspended him indefinitely, almost guaranteeing that Rice would never play in the league again.
These moves were all necessary, but all too little too late. If the two had decided to do this at the beginning of this whole process, they would both be revered for taking a stand against such a heinous crime. But they didn’t. They waited and waited, and when they finally decided how to discipline this shell of a man, it was not nearly enough. The judicial process was a systematic failure by the NFL. Similar to how Penn State had the chance to stand up for what was right in the early-2000s and again in 2011 and act on the Jerry Sandusky scandal, the NFL waited until they had absolutely no choice but to do something. And, like Penn State, the NFL should currently be cleaning house.
To start, both Ozzie Newsome, the general manager of the Ravens, and Richard Cass, the president of the team, should be forced with a decision to step down or be fired. Both men failed at their job. Both men seemingly acted in the interest of winning football games rather than acting in the right. They wanted to protect the product on the field instead of standing up against domestic abuse. They had a chance to be better than the league and make a team-sanctioned punishment for Rice, but they decided, instead, to stand behind him and simply say they were surprised that Rice was capable of what he did.
Secondly, at the NFL offices in New York, Roger Goodell should also be faced with the same decision. Goodell embarrassed the league and spat in the face of every person who has ever been the victim of domestic abuse. The two game suspension by the league was a joke. It was neither severe nor fair. Since the suspension, he has said how he screwed up and how he should have made the suspension lengthier. But, like everything else coming out now, it is too little too late.
As for the video itself, it is true that the league and team had not seen it until that Monday, but my biggest question to both the league and the team: what did you think happened? What did you think transpired in the elevator that would result in Rice dragging his fiancée’s unconscious body out of the elevator? Those two questions, as well as the two games the league suspended Rice for, are the reasons why changes need to be made. Although everything from here on out will be reactionary and not even close to the deserved punishment, it will at least be something.
Like Rice sucker-punching Palmer, the NFL metaphorically sucker punched every effort made by activists trying to bring attention to domestic abuse. The NFL, the most popular sports league in the US by far, failed not only itself, but failed the society that adores it. Football has become synonymous with terrible crimes as of late, and none of the governing bodies, NCAA or NFL, have done much to stop them. Sometimes, treating the symptoms, or in this case the players, only works if they are truly scared of the penalties. If both bodies want to rid themselves of the disease, they have to attack fast and strong, not slow and weak. Until that day, sadly, we may not see true justice in the NFL.