Why the Judge Got It Right on Ray Rice

Two weeks ago, a visitor to one of my classes told us to write about how the Ray Rice incident has completely changed society’s perception of domestic violence. I’ve been putting off the assignment, because there’s only so many ways to say, “Has it, though?” But, given that the judge has now ruled in Rice’s favor against the NFL’s suspension, it seems like an ok time to finally find another way to say: It’s incredibly rare for any one thing to change everything. That’s not typically how massive societal problems are solved.

Putting aside the entire issue of rehabilitation v. retributive justice and whether (or for how long) a person should be punished before they can re-enter society, the judge’s decision still is not surprising. And, it’s not necessarily wrong.

What Rice did was wrong. Knocking someone out — unless they’re about to knock you out, which I think we can all agree was not the case here — is wrong. That’s why it’s a crime and why there are punishments outlined for that crime. That’s why the NFL followed its however-flawed protocols when Rice was charged initially. If those punishments and protocols are not appropriate, then they should be changed. (Clearly, they should be changed.) But, in our system, generally speaking, the rules can’t be changed after the fact. The guilty are meant to be afforded just as many rights as the innocent. It’s sort of part of the ugly beauty of the system.

And, that’s pretty much what the judge said. Seriously, read what the judge said. The NFL doled out its initial punishment and then changed its mind later. The NFL changed its mind not because any facts changed, but because suddenly everyone was forced to confront exactly how badly the rules needed to be revised. I’m glad we’re mostly all on board with that now and I’m sorry it took actually seeing someone get knocked unconscious by a loved one to finally believe that this happens, but our mass ignorance is not Rice’s fault. We may want it to be. We may want him to be punished more thoroughly for getting videotaped punching his wife. We may want to unleash all our righteous anger on a very deserving target. But, our desire to turn one person into a rallying point doesn’t make it so.

So often we want the particulars of any one terrible event to be such that if we resolve them then that absolves us of fixing whatever caused that injustice in the first place. If Ray Rice can’t play football, then domestic violence isn’t a problem. But, clearly, that’s not how it works.

The Ray Rice incident — as it has, unfortunately, come to be called — did not fundamentally change the country’s perception of domestic violence. It changed it slightly. It made slightly more people realize that domestic violence is a problem, particularly in situations where we give one half of the couple undue power and influence. It made an even smaller number of people start to wonder if football is inherently one of those situations. It made the press slightly more inclined to ask a few more questions. It made the NFL likely to change the rules for how it deals with future domestic violence assaults. Because there will be future domestic violence assaults — of course there will be, not that much has changed. Not yet.


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