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.


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.