On August 28, commissioner Roger Goodell sent a letter to the 32 ownership groups of the NFL, laying out the league’s new policy on domestic violence. The letter stated that first-time offenders would be suspended six games.
Eleven days later, the NFL suspended Ray Rice indefinitely for his assault on then-fiancée Janay Palmer in a hotel elevator.
At the risk of sounding like I’m advocating for Rice, which I most certainly am not, I have to ask: What happened to the six-game suspension? Why, less than two weeks after laying down its new disciplinary code, did the NFL completely ignore it?
There would seem to be only three plausible answers:
1. RICE’S CRIME WAS MUCH WORSE THAN GOODELL BELIEVED In announcing the six-game standard to his bosses, the commissioner wrote that there would be “consideration given to mitigating factors, as well as a longer suspension when circumstances warrant. Among the circumstances that would merit a more severe penalty would be a prior incident before joining the NFL, or violence involving a weapon, choking, repeated striking, or when the act is committed against a pregnant woman or in the presence of a child.”
As far as we can tell – though practically nothing would surprise us at this point – Rice did none of those things. Perhaps even if he didn’t check any boxes on that vile checklist, Rice’s assault on Palmer was deemed to have crossed some sort of threshold of common decency. This argument would be naïve, ill-conceived and repugnant.
The original court summons from the incident at the hotel alleged that Rice struck Palmer with his hand and knocked her unconscious. Rice was initially charged with simple assault-domestic violence, but was later indicted on the more serious count of aggravated assault for “attempting to cause significant bodily injury, and/or purposely or knowingly causing such injury and/or recklessly causing such injury under extreme indifference to the value of human life,” according to the grand jury indictment.
Roger, what the hell do you think domestic violence looks like? Watch the TMZ tape again if you’re not sure. Just about every male celebrity ever accused of domestic violence has suggested that things momentarily got out of hand while he was trying to restrain or fend off his angry woman. In reality, this rarely seems to be the case. To have assumed that Rice’s role in Palmer’s loss of consciousness that night fell degrees short of a knockout punch would be to have lived in a fantasy world.
2. THE NFL UPPED THE PUNISHMENT BECAUSE THE CRIME WAS CAUGHT ON VIDEOTAPE
The more we all chew on the facts of this case, the more likely this explanation seems. A lot of people, from athletes to social commentators to comics, have suggested as much over the last 36 hours.
And why not? Donald Sterling was widely renowned as a despicable old racist for 30 years, but wasn’t ousted from the NBA until someone sold the audio to TMZ. Likewise, Ray Rice was a woman-beater for several months, but didn’t get the professional heave-ho until that same web site negotiated for the video clip.
The lesson is chilling: Commit practically any crime or social transgression you want, and if you are powerful enough, and if we don’t have something we can actually hear or watch, streamed on our phones, we’ll find a way to let you off the hook.
It speaks poorly not only of the NBA and the NFL, but of the media who cover them, and in fact of our entire culture. There was enough low-grade outrage over Rice’s original two-game suspension to brighten Twitter for a couple days, but nothing strong enough to bring down his career or get Ravens management and NFL execs back on their heels. That didn’t come until we ALL saw the video.
Shame on us. Again.
3. RICE WAS PUNISHED FOR LYING TO GOODELL
Rice and Palmer met with Goodell in June to explain their version(s) of events. Maybe Rice told the commissioner he struck his now-wife in self-defense. Maybe the former running back told Goodell they tussled and she accidentally hit her head, and maybe Palmer nodded solemnly while he spun his tale.
There isn’t any evidence of this, of course. The NFL did not cite this factor when it announced it was suspending Rice indefinitely. No one in the league has suggested it since. Honestly, we have no compelling reason to think Rice’s dishonesty is what guided Goodell’s decision. But we can hope this is the case – because the first two explanations, while more likely, are almost too disgusting to acknowledge.