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.


It Literally Does Not Matter Who Wins

At the USC-UCLA game yesterday (which is, apparently, the big game around here, and for which they can’t call their pre-game bonfire a bonfire, but have to call it Conquest), I was standing in line for the shuttle and this guy behind me was making a lot of comments to his wife — or the woman he was possibly romantically involved with, or not, whatever — about how USC students and fans were stupid, ugly, and deserve to lose. He wanted her to point out where the end of the line was only to UCLA fans. He also hypothesized that the USC slogan, “Fight On,” was a prison thing.

This guy was in his late-50s.

The only connection he had to anything about the game was that some of the kids playing in it currently attend the same institution that he once attended. That’s it. No one playing personally insulted him. Unless he’s a big gambler, he had nothing riding on the outcome. It literally did not matter that some people at a school he attended a long time ago might win a sports thing. That really shouldn’t foster hatred or any strong feelings whatsoever, if you think about it.

And, yet, it does.

I have a hard time understanding this. Of course, I understand it theoretically. Of course, I watch the sports things. And, I root for people/teams and I cheer and I care a little bit, but, unless I personally know you, I don’t really care that much. The outcome of a game is not going to ruin my day — even the ones, like the USMNT game this summer, that I totally mistakenly believe “we” are going to win — unless I get beaten up by an angry opposing fan. And, when you apologize to me later in passing for the outcome of a game, it will take me some time to figure what you did to me. Because the answer is nothing.

I really dislike plenty of people, but I dislike them on an individual level. Like the guy standing behind me in line for the shuttle. I was starting to really dislike him, but not because he went to UCLA, because he seemed like probably a jackass.

Fun tailgating, where we made friends with the tent next to ours (even though they were possibly fans of the other team) and played games.
Fun tailgating, where we made friends with the tent next to ours (even though they were possibly fans of the other team) and played games.

We Don’t Have to Be the Best at Everything

Last weekend, I went to a Galaxy soccer game with one of my classmates. It was, apparently, the playoffs. And, the Galaxy won 5-0. It was all very exciting.

So much soccer.

It was also pretty full. And, soccer crowds, for all that they tend to be small, are scrappy. They make up for their lack of numbers with volume and enthusiasm. I know that everyone is always worrying about how to make soccer happen in the U.S. When, oh, when, is soccer going to become big here?? But, I got news: I think it already is.

I was thinking about this when I was at the USC-Cal game on Thursday night. The Coliseum holds over four times as many people as the Galaxy stadium. (The Galaxy stadium, StubHub Center, actually sits on the campus of Cal State University, amid industrial-looking office complexes, and we got mildly lost wandering around the infinite number of drab buildings trying to find our car.) Yet, the Coliseum didn’t feel that full on Thursday night. It was sort of a low-key game. Sure, they had a horse and Miley Cyrus, but the stands didn’t shake with everyone stomping. No one tried to do the wave and the screaming didn’t overpower my ability to hear. I know there were more people in the semi-empty Coliseum than at the mostly full StubHub Center. But, maybe the number of people at the Galaxy game was enough people.

At the USC game.

IM Kona aired today on NBC. Triathlon will never attract the fans or the money of football, or probably even of soccer. Ironman races will never have live TV coverage. (There’s only a few of us who will watch a whole eight-hour broadcast of a race.) That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of money to made in triathlon — if there wasn’t then there wouldn’t be so many private equity and venture capital firms trying — and plenty of people who love the sport. NBC broadcasts an hour-and-a-half of highlights for the mainstream and maybe that’s fine for them.

Why do we need to be the most, the best at everything? The U.S. is very good at a lot of sports. Logistically, though, there has to be a limit. We can’t win at football and basketball and soccer and triathlon. Not getting into the whole inevitable decline of America thing, but we won’t be the best forever at everything. No one can be. And, there’s no reason we have to be.

The soccer game was still fun, even though Miley Cyrus wasn’t in attendance. The professional ultimate frisbee players I’m interviewing for a story will still play disc, even though they only make about $50/game. I still like racing triathlon, even though the sport may never happen in the U.S. Maybe I like it a little more because it hasn’t happened, because you have to be there because you want to be there. Maybe part of the appeal is not automatically being the biggest or the best.

Behind the Scenes at College Football

USC-Oregon St

Yesterday, for one of my classes, we got to go inside the ESPN production trucks at the USC-Oregon State game. I didn’t take any pictures inside, because I didn’t want to get in anyone’s way, but above is the picture Audrey took of our credentials. That’s some fancy stuff.

The production truck is an impressive operation. Every person — and there are a lot of them — has a specific job and all the jobs mesh together into organized chaos. One person is counting down; another is calling shots into a microphone to someone on the field and to someone in a blimp and to someone in another truck; another is discussing with the on-field reporter whether or not Will Ferrell will talk on camera; other people are editing replays on the fly. By necessity, live events can only be planned so much in advance. For the rest of it, you sort of just have to plan on knowing what to do when the opportunity arises. You have to rely on the fact that you’ll rise to the occasion. And, they clearly do, every week.

It actually reminded me a lot of Sports Night, except minus the comic screw-ups and romantic entanglements:

The number of flashing lights and buttons and screens is obviously overwhelming. But, I was thinking about it while we were there, and clearly you can learn. You can learn your job, and then the next job, and the next. Until it’s not overwhelming anymore. It’s just organized (and fun) chaos. I’m actually really good at working fast on tight deadlines, but every time I have to do live events it makes me nervous. Every single time I worry that this time I’ll forget what to do. Or, this will be the time that I reach into the well and there’s nothing there to draw on.

By now I know that I’ll come through the blank panic. Usually. By now I know I can count on myself. Usually. I wonder if the people in the production truck have the same fear, if they worry that this time they won’t be able to find the shots or keep up the pace, that they’ll let up for a second and our TVs will just show nothing. I’m sure the people on the field reach into themselves sometimes and just have to hope that they’ll still have it, that the game is so deep down they can’t forget it. And, then, I’m sure they have to make themselves forget the empty fear and remember to play.

Why We’re All A Little Bit to Blame for Ray Rice

We now know beyond question, down to the exact direction of the punch and the look of the woman slumped over in the minutes after, that Ray Rice hit his then-fiance while in an elevator back in the spring. Arguably we knew that before, but now we know that we can’t pretend we didn’t know.

There is plenty to be upset about in the video — which I don’t feel like posting or linking to here, not because I haven’t seen it, but simply because I don’t like contributing to the turning of someone’s pain (her’s, not his) into entertainment. Yes, you should be upset by the video. Be upset about the existence of violence in relationships that are supposed to be the opposite of violent. Be upset, have your stomach churn, to know that this is what that violence looks like for millions of women. Be pissed off, be angry that we allow this to exist all the time, all around us, as long as we don’t have to face on video what happens behind closed doors. Know that the NFL most likely knew what happened behind those doors — knows what happens behind the doors of more than a few of its players — but finds it more profitable to feign ignorance. Know that you are a part of those profits. Because if you’re going to be angry, be pissed at yourself a little too.

The biggest problem I have with turning Ray Rice into an example of how we aren’t going to stand this kind of domestic violence in our national pasttime is that in doing so we’re taking ourselves off the hook for being a part of the culture that nurtures and creates him. It’s the same thing we do when we demonize dopers or force the exit of an executive for writing an email that said explicitly the semi-racist things that are undoubtably often said vaguely by most people in the upper offices. What we are doing is blaming one terrible person for being awful, making it their fault and only their fault, instead of acknowledging any fault the system might have for allowing them to exist in the first place.

Yes, 100%, absolutely, choosing to hit your fiance/now-wife is a personal reflection of your shittiness, for which no one else is responsible. I am in no way absolving him of knocking a woman unconscious and then dragging her out of the elevator.

What I am saying is that he is not the first and will not be the last professional football player to do so. What I am saying is that we deify these men for their prowess at violence. We shower them with money and ask in exchange that they catch a ball or throw a ball or stop someone else from catching a ball. That is all we ask. And, if they do it well, we throw parties and fund fantasy teams and buy their jerseys. We ignore these players’ many faults, for as long as we can, because it would not be an enjoyable game for us otherwise. (Obviously, football is not the only sport in which we do this, it’s just the biggest.)

Even the smartest and most down-to-earth NFL players, ones who seem like truly good guys, talk about how the violence on the field is hard to escape, how they have to turn themselves into animals to play the game and go into a different kind of mental space, which can be impossible to explain or shake off. There is more and more documented evidence that the damage (brain and otherwise) inflicted on players can change their personalities, can make them more violent and hard to live with. This is what the sport is.

Throwing Ray Rice out of the league and trading in his jerseys isn’t going to change that. (It probably is actually making things a lot worse in that household, in practical terms, if we really cared about helping the woman who was hit.) Firing Roger Goodell might make us feel better too, like real change was on the horizon. And maybe it would be. Maybe. Maybe there’d be counseling and education programs for players. Maybe they’d make some rule changes to get rid of the most egregious unnecessary on-field violence. Maybe NFL executives wouldn’t cover-up what they couldn’t ignore. But, it would take systemic changes that the public would have to call for. It would take us acknowledging a problem that is bigger than just one person.

Learning to Care About Football

I don’t know anything about football. I mean I know the general rules because I grew up in America. But, I don’t care about it. Lots of people do, though. See:

John Martinez Pavliga/Flickr
John Martinez Pavliga/Flickr


So, as part of my student USC grad school education, I’m trying to learn to care. Partially this is useful because it may be hard to be any kind of semi-respected sports reporter (even if you’re a sports reporter specializing in not football) without knowing enough to have a conversation. Partially, though, it’s an experiment. Can I learn enough to know the intricacies? To care about them? To have opinions?

It’s not like I can’t learn things fast and like I don’t care about sports generally. And, it’s not like I haven’t read a ton of books about the behind-the-scenes of sports I previously knew nothing about. (Ask me anything about late-1990s gymnastics. I went through a phase.) I’ve even read a few football books, including some really good ones. But, football is so immersed in statistics and shorthand and references to the past that it’s hard for a newbie or outsider to be welcomed into the fold. Part of me thinks the diehard fans prefer it this way.

I don’t know that I’ll ever become a diehard fan. There’s too many people who know too much for me to ever catch up. The base level knowledge for a general middle-aged football fan in America is shockingly high. What could the country accomplish if that amount of effort and attention to detail had been directed elsewhere? Perhaps little more than fewer concussions and a well-developed fantasy Congress instead.

Still, I’ve already read more about college football than I ever have in the past. Steve was impressed with my knowledge of Josh Shaw. And, the whole first issue of my re-subscription to Sports Illustrated was dedicated to the NFL preview, which I mostly skimmed, except for the profiles, because everything started to blend together into gibberish. It’s like the world wants me to care about football, but it making it as challenging as possible. Jump right in. Who do you think will win this weekend? Next weekend? In January? But don’t you think UCLA’s program is making a turn-around? And, how will the 49ers recover from Aldon Smith’s suspension? What about Ray Rice’s suspension? And Josh Gordon’s? Don’t you have an informed opinion? Have an opinion! Get informed! Care!