Ray Rice did a terrible thing. Nobody can dispute that. But I question much of the attention that his crime has received. I see something of a cycle in sports reporting, and in the media as a whole. Someone does something indisputably bad. Analysts will then spend the next week or two telling us that this was, in fact, a bad thing to do. Everyone gets to contribute to the collective moral outrage, and everyone gets to walk away feeling superior to the “bad” person.
Don’t think that I want to excuse Rice of his actions. He should serve out a punishment that both fits his own crime and acts as a statement by the NFL against violence on the part of its players. But we don’t react this way every time an NFL player commits a violent act. We don’t react this way every time an NFL player is guilty of domestic violence. We react this way when we see it played out in front of us on video. We react this way when it is easy to react this way.
You might remember the case of a former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers named Donald Sterling. His name appeared in the headlines a few times this past spring. Sterling had a long history of questionable-at-best decisions regarding race, but it took a recorded phone call to bring the fury of the public down upon him. Everyone from Twitter and Facebook users to ESPN anchors rushed to join in with the chorus of vocal indignation.
Just like with Sterling, the accusations against Rice appeared long before the anger erupted. We did not learn of Rice’s domestic abuse a few days ago. No, that’s when the video of his crime found its way into the public eye. The act itself did not motivate the outrage. It took footage of the crime to cause such a public outcry. No one short of a sociopath can see that video and not react with horror. There is no middle ground here, only a vicious, indefensible act, and that presents a fantastic opportunity for everyone from TV analysts to politicians. Instead of having to take a stand on any one of the difficult moral issues that dot our sports landscape, they get to point at the monster and gasp.
The sports media should find the controversies, not simply beat into the ground the ones that are given to them. Ray Rice is a problem, but he is an easy problem to see. Anyone with an internet connection can witness the brutal nature of his crime. The media should get us to pay attention to these issues even when TMZ does not manage to get a hold of the footage. Having said that, the general public needs to do more as well. This sort of incident could prompt a productive discussion on the disease of violence, specifically domestic violence, in our society. Or we could keep competing with our friends on social media to see who can be more upset.
The Ravens, for their part, deserve no applause for cutting Rice. They waited to release him until they absolutely had to. Rice had already admitted to knocking his partner unconscious, which should have been enough on its own to provoke a serious reaction from both the team, the media and the wider public. Now all three groups are attempting to save face with a belated sense of outrage.
I think part of this reaction stems from the uncertain position of the modern football fan. We watch players destroy each other on a weekly basis, knowing full well that those players suffer life-changing health consequences because of the game they play for our entertainment. Maybe this is our way of saying that we are really not bad people, because we can still recognize brutality when we see it.
The problem is that we often don’t recognize it. The story of Josh Brent, who killed his teammate while driving drunk two years ago, barely registered in the public’s consciousness. Brent has had multiple issues with impaired driving, yet he will return to the field in Week 11 of this season. Why does he get to play? Are we OK with manslaughter, but draw the line at domestic assault? And then there’s Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald, who both have faced domestic abuse charges of their own. Now that Ray Rice has become the bad kind of household name, the NFL will probably review their cases. But before? They were free to play.
The point is, while we would like to blame the NFL and the courts, we are all failing. The fans will watch no matter what happens, demanding little from their favorite teams. Those teams will only act when they have no other choice. And the media seems to have forgotten its role entirely.
Everybody wants to look at Ray Rice and feel like an upstanding member of society by comparison. But really, no one should come away from a story of vicious domestic abuse feeling good about themselves.
Photo: Kenneth Lam/Baltimore Sun