The National Football League is currently in the midst of a nightmare. It began on February 15 of this year, when Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was arrested for striking his then-fiancee, Janay, in an Atlantic City casino elevator and dragging out her unconscious body. Since then, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the management of the Baltimore Ravens have found themselves under relentless fire from fans and media for not using their authority to hold Rice accountable. It has brought to light the NFL’s rampant domestic violence issue and the need for it to be adequately addressed and eventually resolved.
Goodell and Ravens officials originally tried to smooth over the incident by allowing Janay to shoulder the majority of the blame and by doing everything possible to spare Ray Rice from being punished for his actions. In a May news conference with both Ray and Janay, Ray apologized to his team and Janay apologized to Ray. By having Ray Rice apologize to the team and not to Janay, Ray and the Ravens seemed to prioritize the public relations damage the incident caused for the team over the damage caused to Janay. Even worse, Janay was allowed to publicly take responsibility for an altercation in which she was clearly the victim.
NFL and Ravens officials were content to write the situation off as another relationship problem, subscribing couples counseling as a solution. Coincidentally, they failed to pick up that the victim in an abusive relationship often defends the perpetrator for a multitude of reasons. It was much easier to let the conflicted Janay defend the prize player than to acknowledge that said player had done something truly horrible and inexcusable.
To make their route out even more seamless, officials noted that the evidence was not conclusive enough and the extent of the crime was unknown. At the time, the video released to the public showed only Ray dragging Janay out of the elevator. Despite clear accounts given by police as well as Rice’s own admissions to Goodell, the NFL held off on legitimate punishment by latching on to the claim that more details were needed; evidently, the ones available were not gruesome or horrifying enough to warrant immediate action.
Fans were understandably disturbed by the NFL’s dismissiveness of the issue. However, the widespread nature of domestic violence in the NFL in the past and present outside of this case is only just starting to come to light. According to a study done by USA Today, there have been 85 arrests of NFL players for domestic violence and related incidents since 2000. ESPN’s statistic-centric website “FiveThirtyEight” went further and found that, among other crimes committed by NFL players, domestic violence has the highest arrest rate relative to the average population of men aged 25-29. This indicates that NFL players have a stronger tendency towards domestic violence than the most similar subset of the larger male population. There is a good chance that this can be partially attributed to the NFL’s history of leniency on players involved in domestic violence cases.
The biggest piece of evidence is that no player until now has been issued a suspension for domestic violence, despite all the instances where it has been an evident problem. The NFL had particular reason to start looking into the issue in 2012 after Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend Cassandra Perkins and then proceeded to commit suicide. Unfortunately, while the incident was lamented as a tragedy, the opportunity to look into its roots in domestic violence was not taken. As such, two players this season started for their respective teams on Opening Day after having been arrested for domestic violence: Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy and San Franscisco 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald. If no video of the Ray Rice incident had been released, it is almost certain that Rice would have been allowed to do the same.
Since the video was released and public disapproval was at such a high, Goodell eventually issued Rice a two-game suspension. Many quickly realized that this punishment was inadequate when compared with the magnitude of the offense. To put it in relative terms, the NFL hands out countless four-game suspensions to players who violate the league’s substance policy. This showed two things in particular about the NFL. One was that it prioritized drug use by players which often harmed nothing except the losing team’s score above physical harm inflicted by a player upon another human being. The other was that it was clearly reacting almost entirely to please the fan base, due to the fact that a two-game suspension has the symbolic merit of acting as punishment, while in reality, it has negligible effect on a player’s career and provides little reason to deter them from repeating the offense.
To his credit, Goodell acknowledged that he didn’t handle the incident properly and thus instituted a new NFL policy that called for six-game suspensions on the first occasion of a domestic violence incident and a lifetime suspension for the second. The policy was a step forward in the sense that it laid a foundation for addressing domestic violence as a continuous issue in the NFL in the future. However, the inner layers of the policy reveal loopholes that indicate more of the same when it comes to the theme of appeasing the fans with punishments while trying to get players back to work. For example, the lifelong suspension for the second offense can be appealed after one year. Just picture it: a player who has apparently engaged in domestic violence twice is allowed to get back on the field and rake in millions of dollars after just one year off practically a vacation of sorts. Sadly, it’s also exactly what one would expect from the NFL.
This particular saga with Rice has reached its climax. On September 8, another video was released that showed what actually happened inside the elevator that night. The evidence against Rice was so overwhelming that even Goodell and the Ravens’ management had to react. Goodell suspended Rice indefinitely and the Ravens released him from his contract with them. For the time being, Rice was finally dealt a punishment that substantially affected his career outlook and might actually make him think about, regret and avoid repeating his actions.
Now, where does the NFL go from here in regards to domestic violence? There are key elements that the NFL will have to focus on in =the future if it wants to avoid another debacle like this and, in the long run, gradually mitigate the presence of the crime amongst the players. The new policy will have to be used genuinely; the use of loopholes will have to be minimized so the punishments truly teach players a lesson. Furthermore, while there are already educational programs in place for rookies regarding domestic violence, there could be a possibility of educating further below with prospective NFL players in high school and college, as well as educating current players on a regular basis; there has been discussion in the NFL of having such “grassroots” initiatives, which is a positive sign.
It seems as if Goodell has understood that he can no longer plod along on a case-by-case basis and he will thus have to address domestic violence as a whole in the NFL. Now it’s up to him to decide how much he is willing to move the NFL away from being an amoral business and towards being an entity aimed at providing entertainment while still maintaining a notion of justice and fairness. And, us fans can keep pressuring him along the way, too. Maybe if we take on that duty, the NFL will take on theirs. That’s what we’d like to hope; now let’s see where it actually goes.