Tuesday, September 16, 2014

More Thoughts on Ray and Janay Rice, the NFL, Public Opinion and the Failure of Our Legal System

Some of the responses to my previous post on Ray and Janay Rice got me thinking -- again. Valid dissenting points have been made, but my biggest concern remains the sincerity of a public that has cast its collective self in the role of judge, jury and executioner. (I have no doubt that if they could, they'd sentence Rice to death by blows to the head.) Is it all about getting justice for victims of domestic abuse and fighting what is a global epidemic (and not one that's just contained to football husbands and wives), or is it all about punishing a football hero and a sports culture that had it coming?

Let's look at the four main arguments I've heard/read that have been made in favor of exacting revenge -- I mean, punishment -- that will last for the rest of Rice's life.

The Role Model Argument

Are football players role models? I'll give them that. When football players sign on for the NFL, are they signing on to be role models? I'll give them that, too. But who isn't a role model? Everyone is a role model to someone. Do we now start gauging the severity of crimes on to whom and to how many you are considered to be a role model?

I know that football is pivotal to the American way, but I believe many people overvalue its importance to all Americans. I'd never heard of Ray Rice until last week. Surely there must be millions of non-football fans who were as clueless as I was, and some who still are. If you think about it, the influence of pop stars is far more pervasive than that of sports stars. Should we hold them up to the same personal-professional standards?

I mentioned Chris Brown in my previous post, but let's go back farther. Last year I watched an episode of TV One's documentary series Unsung on the late R&B singer Tammi Terrell. Perhaps the most revealing thing in the episode was Terrell's abusive relationships with James Brown and then-Temptations singer David Ruffin. In fact, there was some speculation that a severe beating by Ruffin may have exacerbated the brain tumor that eventually killed Terrell in 1970 at age 24.

I haven't been able to listen to James Brown since without thinking about how he treated Terrell, and I briefly considered never again listening to his music, but what would have been the point? Should Brown, one of the most popular entertainers of the time, the black Elvis and a role model to many (then and now, nearly a decade after his death), have been banned from recording and touring after he beat the crap out of Terrell following one of his shows? Think of all the iconic music the world would have missed: "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," "I Got You," "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" and pretty much everything Brown did from 1964 on.

No, I'm not saying that great music is more important than the welfare of young women. But those who are aware of the tempestuousness of Brown and Terrell's relationship probably wouldn't want to erase those classics from the rock and soul canon any more than contemporary R&B recording artists were ready to stop lining up to collaborate with Chris Brown after he assaulted Rihanna. It should be up to the legal system, not a loud and vengeful public, to determine if and how domestic abusers get to resume their careers, regardless of what those careers might be.

But yeah, I get it: The NFL reserves the right to do just that in the contracts its players sign. Alright then. However, constantly calling out Rice's professional/celebrity status makes it seem as if that's why the public deems the abuse to be so bad. If we heard about a plumber doing what he did, and even saw video of it, would everyone be as up in arms over it, demanding that he never again unclog a drain, or that a lawyer who slugs his wife be disbarred in every state for life, or do they want the NFL to permanently dump Rice (on top of his already being fired by the Baltimore Ravens) only because he no longer deserves a lucrative football gig? Is there a hierarchy of abuse that depends on what you do for a living and how public a profile you have? Does the abuser's being a well-known role model to a lot of people somehow make it worse for the abused? Isn't she supposed to be the focus?

And what does the fact that football players are on the pedestals we put them on say about us? It's not just the NFL's fault that they are overpaid and in a position to get away with murder, figuratively speaking, of course.

The "The Video Shows Just How Terrible the Assault Was" Argument

The second video should not have been grounds for increasing Rice's punishment, and it wouldn't have been if the prosecution had done its job. A friend of mine argued that it was the second video that showed just how aggressive the attack was. Now let me get this straight. We see a first video of a man dragging an unconscious body out of an elevator, and we already know that he had punched her off-screen. Does it really take seeing the second video to know that the attack was brutal? Of course, it was brutal.

Do her shoes falling off her feet make it somehow worse? Are we once again creating a hierarchy of abuse, but this time basing it on our feelings about the footage? Was abuse less serious an offense in the days before TMZ when we didn't all have access to such private moments in people's lives? In becoming voyeurs, we've also anointed ourselves as a sort of supreme court, responsible for doling out punishments to everyone who is caught acting badly on video or on tape because a crime is so much worse when we see it and hear it than when we just know that it happened? Tell that to the women who are beaten every day in the privacy of their own homes by men whose names nobody knows.

It's not important whether the NFL had access to this footage or not. What's important is that the prosecuting attorney must have, and still Rice got off with a slap on the wrist. Why aren't we demanding retroactive justice from the law? Because it's so much more dramatic, a much bigger statement, to hit Rice where it really counts: in his bank account? Who is this helping again?

The Let's-Protect-Women-from-the-Macho-Football-Star Argument

Yes, football players can be assholes. Yes, they sometimes degrade women. But is that a malady that is so unique to football players? What about the way Hollywood treats women? The music industry? Men in general. I would be more supportive of this argument if it seemed to come more from a place of genuinely wanting to look out for women and less from a place of wanting to knock football players down a few pegs. The primary focus during this entire controversy has been on Ray Rice when it actually should have been on his then-fiancee Janay Rice (nee Palmer).

Does anyone know the names of the two men who tortured Matthew Shepard and left him to die in 1998. Regardless of whether the crime was motivated by Shepard's sexuality, as the victim, he was always central to the story. In death, he became a martyr, an enduring symbol of the ongoing gay-rights movement, though in life, he hadn't made any notable contributions to it. If Twitter had existed back then, "#MatthewShepard" would have been trending for weeks.

We may be more desensitized to violence against women than we are to gay men being brutalized to death, but that's no reason to make the victim of domestic abuse a secondary player, an afterthought, in a case that should be all about her. Many people probably still don't even know the name Janay Rice, which as far as I can tell, never trended on Twitter. Or do the specifics about her (other than that she married Rice anyway) not matter because she isn't Rihanna?

So don't tell me this is all about looking out for the best interest of Janay Rice and women like her. It's about Ray Rice's celebrity, our need to be indignant about something (in the social media age, having a voice has become a birthright and being appalled a national pastime), and our need to put a rich and famous jock in his place.

The Marijuana Argument

There's also the idea that domestic abuse is a far more serious offense than smoking marijuana, and the punishment doled out by the NFL should reflect that. I think that, once again, this is something that needs to be taken up with the legal system, which treats drug offenses far more seriously than domestic abuse.

A friend made an interesting suggestion to me: The law actually has inadvertent firing power. If district attorneys were forced to prosecute offenders to the full extent of the law, especially when there is irrefutable video proof, that would kill two birds with one stone. If people charged and convicted of domestic abuse were in jail where they belong, then they would be unable to show up for work -- whether their job is in the NFL or at the local deli -- and ultimately they would end up being fired, without employers having to overstep their authority or rely on way too arbitrary personal-conduct clauses.

But the question would remain: How do we help Janay and other women like her by preventing future incidents of domestic abuse? Or is punishing Rice the only thing that matters?
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