This isn’t about justice. It’s not about taking a principled, necessary, overdue stand against domestic violence. It definitely isn’t about Roger Goodell’s self-congratulatory policy of Doing The Right Thing Because Doing The Right Thing Is The Right Thing To Do™. Running back Ray Rice is out of a job, cut by the Baltimore Ravens and suspended indefinitely by the National Football League, for one reason and one reason alone.
He makes us feel bad about watching football.
On Monday morning, TMZ Sports released surveillance camera video of Rice punching his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino in February. The footage is sickening. Rice strikes Palmer in the head with a left hook; she drops sideways, smashing her head against a handrail while collapsing to the floor. Public outrage was swift—and with the exception of Fox News, largely unequivocal. Hours later, the Ravens announced Rice’s contract termination via a one-sentence press release; shortly thereafter, the NFL said on Twitter that Goodell had placed the running back’s career in limbo “based on new video evidence.”
Of course, the last part is bulls—t. Baltimore has claimed that no one in its organization had seen the video before TMZ Sports made it public. Somewhat unconvincingly, the NFL insists the same, despite ample previous reporting to the contrary. Whatever the case, it doesn’t really matter when Goodell and/or the Ravens first witnessed the grainy, stop-motion images of Rice knocking Palmer unconscious. Neither the team nor the league commissioner cut ties with Rice because of the video itself, or because of any particular moral outrage over its contents, or because, you know, Palmer was hurt. To the contrary, they jettisoned the running back because the rest of us were hurt. Outraged, too. The season ticket-holders. The Nielsen households. The fantasy junkies. The reporters and pundits, sponsors and advertisers, players, ex-players and coaches just sittin’ around a soundstage talkin’ football. Anyone and everyone who greeted the NFL’s Sunday regular season return like Christmas in September. The people whose continued willingness to tune in, turn on and buy replica jerseys powers the entire multibillion-dollar business of professional football, making Goodell’s $40 million-plus annual salary possible. The moment the elevator video was released, Rice became bad for business. Toxic to the paying public.
And so he had to go.
Consider: the Ravens already knew that Rice had hit Palmer. So did the NFL. That part wasn’t news. Rice was charged with felony aggravated assault in the case, entering a pretrial intervention program in May. Moreover, the details of the case hardly were a secret. In July, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported that Rice struck Palmer “hard” and that her head “struck the rail inside the elevator and she was unconscious.”
At the time, how did Goodell react? By handing Rice a two-game suspension, a shorter time-out than some players have received for flunking league marijuana screening. And how did the Ravens respond? By doing nothing—well, nothing beyond: (a) Tweeting that Palmer “deeply regrets the role that she played on the night of the incident”; (b) posting a fluffy article about Rice’s anti-bullying work and how “turning your back on a loved one in a time of need is not what families do”; © Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh stating in a press conference that Rice’s suspension was a good lesson for “kids” on “how it should be.”
When the press and the public subsequently took the NFL to task for not caring about domestic violence, Goodell reversed field, adopting a minimum six-game suspension for first-time domestic violence offenders and writing an August letter to league owners stating that “my disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values … I didn’t get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.“ All of which sounds good. Like something an especially principled politician might say. Only it’s empty. Goodell didn’t act out of principle. He flip-flopped to save face. To appease the league’s audience. (Note: if Goodell has something truly important to discuss with league owners, such as expected neurodegenerative disease incidence rates or SpyGate, don’t expect him to do it via public letter).
Read Goodell’s letter again: my disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity … I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. Sincerity. Values. “Properly reflect.” Those are the tells. Always remember: the NFL exists as a football public relations enterprise. Nothing more. It isn’t a police department, a circuit court, an elected body of lawmakers ostensibly serving the public good. It isn’t interested in curbing or combating domestic violence per se, any more than it cares about wiping out malaria. However, it is interested—obsessively interested—in your perception of the league, in your idea of it standing for something both bigger than and beyond large men in numbered pajamas playing glorified muckle for your prime-time escapist amusement and weekend gambling fix. (Granted, I’m sure neither Goodell nor anyone in the league wants to see Palmer or anyone else get viciously cold-cocked, but then again, who does?) No matter how many times Goodell teams with Colin Powell to recite the Declaration of Independence before the Super Bowl, the NFL can never be an actual moral arbiter, its long downfield passes arcing toward justice. Still, it sure helps to play-act the part, especially when doing so helps wash away the lousy, guilt-inducing taste of brain damage, ethnic disrespect, indefensible taxpayer ripoffs and, yes, the nauseating images of Rice punching his wife-to-be in the face.
Shortly after Goodell announced Rice’s indefinite suspension, the league’s official website published a short article addressing the fantasy football impact of what author Marcas Grant euphemistically termed a “domestic incident.” Too soon? For sure. Trivializing and tone-deaf? Without doubt. That said, there was something weirdly honest about the piece—something that gets at the core of our relationship with the NFL, and why we get so angry when the league behaves badly. As fans vent and former Pennsylvania governor and Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell joins Keith Olbermann in calling for Goodell’s resignation perhaps it’s worth asking: should we be disappointed in the league for its knee-jerk, image-conscious handling of Rice, or in ourselves for expecting more in the first place?
Patrick Hruby is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to Sports on Earth, ESPN.com, and Washingtonian magazine, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. He is a former adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @patrick_hruby.