Saturday, September 13, 2014

Public Punishment for Private Sin: Would Banning Ray Rice from the NFL Help Anyone?

I'm sports dumb, and I'm not ashamed to admit it. Two letters aside, I can barely tell the difference between the NFL and the NBA. One week ago, I'd never heard of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, and I still have no idea what a running back even does for a living.

Frankly, I hope it won't be long before I'll never again have to read Rice's still-trending name or see his face. I don't know which is worse: the way he knocked out his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, with one blow to the head in that elevator in Atlantic City's Revel Casino Hotel last February 15, or how he callously mistreated her unconscious body afterwards, as if she were a human-sized rag doll.

Why Palmer married him anyway is beyond me. I'm not one of those people who believes wondering what she was thinking is tantamount to blaming the victim. At some point, we all have to answer for our choices. That said, she's not the first woman to stay with a man who physically abused her, and that she did doesn't make her a bad person, or even a stupid one. This is ultimately between the now-Rices.

Remember the old saying: "To err is human, to forgive, divine"? Well, that applies to both parties in domestic-abuse disputes, too. Maybe Rice apologized profusely, promising never to let it happen again. If he did, it's possible that he actually meant it. While I find his actions to be reprehensible, I have nothing to say about the man himself. It's neither my place nor any of my business.

It probably shouldn't be the National Football League's either, but a personal-conduct policy erasing the line that separates "private" from "professional" gives the NFL the power to play judge and jury and impose punishment for something Rice did off-the-clock. The policy is apparently meant to keep in check those feelings of entitlement, unaccountability and invincibility that the NFL bestows upon players in the first place. Following the incident, Rice was charged with felony aggravated assault and received a two-game suspension. But after TMZ ran footage of the punch on September 8 (the site had previously run video of the aftermath in February), under the pressure of mounting public criticism for not being tough enough, the Ravens fired Rice, and the league suspended him indefinitely. Pending what exactly? That's unclear to me. Maybe until his name stops trending, and the NFL can quietly reinstate him without too much uproar.

Ray Rice is not the first sports star to face the public flogging squad, and coming only months after Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was banned for life by the NBA for privately making racist remarks, he's just the latest high-profile person to be publicly and professionally censured for things said and done in private. I'm not so comfortable with this development in a post-tabloid era when someone is always watching and possibly recording. How far into players' private lives can the NFL go to pinpoint "personal conduct" offenses? Will marital infidelity or getting into a fist fight with your brother in the backyard while a recording app on some bystander's smart phone happens to be turned on eventually be grounds for dismissal?

While NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell recently implemented a new uniform punishment system for domestic violence (a six-game suspension for first offenders, a lifetime ban afterwards), there's been frustrating inconsistency in how we've responded to the transgressions of our non-sports stars. The list of actors and musicians who have committed domestic abuse is long. It's just as much of a problem in Hollywood as it is in the NFL, yet it's rarely addressed. I wonder, though, how lifetime bans would go over in entertainment.

What if Chris Brown had been permanently blacklisted by record labels and tour sponsors after physically assaulting then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009? If Solange Knowles had an endorsement deal to lose, would we have demanded it be rescinded after her own elevator altercation with Jay-Z? Of course, violence inflicted by women against men is rarely taken seriously, especially if social media gets a few good memes out of it. I'm pretty certain that if Jay-Z had fought back, his career would be as done as Chris Brown's seemed to be in the months after he beat up Rihanna.

Imagine "Proud Mary" still being primarily a Creedence Clearwater Revival song (for a banned Ike Turner wouldn't have been able to record an iconic 1971 remake with Tina Turner), or Josh Brolin, who was arrested in 2004 for a domestic assault incident with then-wife Diane Lane, still being best known for the 1996 film Flirting with Disaster. How far back in our celebrities' pasts would we go to demand retroactive retribution for personal-conduct offenses? Should Justin Bieber have been dropped by his record label after the leaking of an old video in which he told a "nigger" joke?

Is getting caught on video the key? It seems as if Ray Rice is being punished less for knocking out his wife than because the punch was caught on tape that went public. If someone had privately sent the video to Commissioner Goodell rather than having it broadcast so publicly on TMZ, would Rice's punishment have been as severe? A law enforcement officer claims to have done just that five months ago, prompting the NFL to do nothing.

If the NFL had been able to keep the entire incident secret, perhaps there never would have been a day of reckoning for Rice. The NFL is now doing a lot of grandstanding, but the fact that the league's powers that be initially gave Rice little more than a wrist slap suggests that the more severe penalty imposed after video of the punch went public is more about PR than any sincere commitment to fighting domestic violence.

And what about the public's vociferous intervention? I could understand it if Rice were an elected public official who owed it to his constituents to walk the straight and narrow, lest his actions reflect poorly on the government. Sports stars fall into a tricky gray area, though. They're in the public eye and well known by a large number of people, but they remain private citizens. Should any guy who hits his wife or girlfriend lose his job, especially if it's caught on video, or is domestic violence somehow worse when it's committed by a rich sports star who may or may not think he's above the law?

Does the mass obsession with taking away Rice's livelihood by banning him from the NFL for life stem from a collective desire to prevent future episodes of domestic violence, or is it mostly a punitive thing, extracting vengeance for a woman who doesn't seem to want any and in the process, prolonging and compounding her suffering? The logic seems to be that it's up to the NFL to make Rice pay because he did a terrible thing and wasn't punished severely enough by New Jersey prosecutors, who agreed to dismiss the charges if Rice completed a year-long rehabilitation program. The legal system should be held more accountable for letting so many domestic abusers walk. Even if a victim refuses to press charges, video proof should make full prosecution mandatory since a crime was clearly committed.

I'm as poorly versed in law as I am in sports, but as far as I know, the NFL is acting within its legal rights by imposing an indefinite ban on Rice. While I believe he should be at the mercy of a tougher legal system and not the NFL, I honestly don't care if he never gets to play again. But I'd rather see the Rices undergoing intensive therapy than see him out of work. The latter wouldn't solve anything (certainly not violent impulses), nor would it fix the legal system, which has failed yet again.

I get the knee-jerk reactions to the videos. I'm appalled and outraged, too. But we shouldn't be blinded by our fury, becoming so obsessed with damning and punishing that we forget about rehabilitating and healing. We've done judgment. Why not try compassion? If not for Ray Rice, for his wife and for all the women who continue to live in fear and danger. Lifetime bans might make us feel better and make the NFL look good, but ultimately, they do nothing for the victims of domestic abuse.
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