LOS ANGELES, August 5, 2014 — While the NFL spent the weekend basking in the glow of another phenomenal Hall of Fame weekend, there were problems away from Canton, Ohio. The last couple of years have been rocky ones for the league, and now Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice has seriously crossed the line.
By assaulting his then-girlfriend (they have since married) back in March, Ray Rice did more than abuse her. He gave the NFL another big, black eye. Rice was suspended two games by Commissioner Roger Goodell and docked a paycheck for a third game for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
There are plenty of issues that will be debated ad nauseum. What happened in the elevator to start the conflict? Is it ever acceptable for a man to hit a woman? Should it be legal for a man to marry his victim (in this case one day after the incident) to prevent her from testifying against him due to spousal privilege?
Those are legal questions. There is also a major football question. Was Ray Rice’s suspension too light? Victim’s advocate groups think it is, but is that charge fair?
The fact that his wife refused to press charges complicates matters from a law and enforcement standpoint. While the media replayed the hotel casino video on an endless loop, there is no video of what happened inside the elevator. While it is hard to imagine mitigating circumstances, they could exist. The only image we have casts Rice in the worst possible light.
This is not to excuse Rice, but we have no idea if he was a man who purposely abused his wife or if he exploded in rage. Context matters because the degree of his behavior should affect how severely he gets punished. A premeditated attack is worse than acting in the heat of passion, and heat of passion is more serious than self-defense, an implausible claim Rice has not even attempted.
A bigger issue involves the NFL Code of Conduct itself. The players hate it because it gives the Commissioner sole discretion to impose sanctions and determine the length of them. Players can appeal, but the Commissioner also hears the appeals. It gives all of the power to one man. Roger Goodell is known for handing down tough punishments.
One of the main reasons the players hate the Code is because it does not require a player to be charged with a crime, much less even convicted, to face league sanctions. The NFL and Goodell in particular have been criticized by some fans for being too strict rather than too lenient.
An overwhelming majority of fans support the Code. They want a clean game played with integrity. The game has seen superstars lose paychecks and playing time. Nobody is above the league. Even league executes including owners are subjected to the Code.
Because punishments are up to the Commissioner, it troubles domestic violence victims that Rice was suspended two games while a player caught with drugs gets a four game ban. Performance enhancing drugs cheat the game. Rice violated his wife’s safety, but did not violate his job. He did not cheat on the field.
So does this mean wife-beaters get a pass?
It does not. Comparing apples to oranges is tough, but there is a comparable apple to the Ray Rice situation.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assaulting a woman in 2008. No charges were filed, and Roethlisberger was not sanctioned by the league. Then in 2010, Roethlisberger was accused of the same crime by a different woman.
Again, no charges were filed, but this time, Goodell suspended Roethlisberger for six games. After Roethlisberger completed counseling, Goodell reduced the suspension to four games.
These sentences would show Goodell to be quite consistent, judicious and fair. The main factor besides the severity of the infraction is the issue of recidivism. Goodell will give a lighter sentence to a first time offender than a repeat offender.
Rice received a two game ban while Roethlisberger skated because Rice was charged with a crime and Roethlisberger was not. Yet after Roethlisberger was accused a second time, Goodell had had enough. He cracked down hard on Roethlisberger because it was his second strike. The District Attorney made it clear that he was not proclaiming Roethlisberger innocent. He just felt the situation was too murky to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and get a conviction.
The argument that domestic abusers escalate into further and deeper violence is serious, but not always true. People cannot be punished for what others think they might do in the future. Some people do change and rehabilitate themselves. Rice could be on the road to self-destruction, but he could also be a man who messed up one time and straightened himself out. Time will tell.
The last issue is money. One argument involves doling out a much larger fine against Rice. The problem with this is that a good portion of his paycheck is used to financially support his wife. Taking away his income hurts her as well, in effect punishing her twice for a matter she refuses to pursue.
In the end, Rice did not get off that lightly. No matter how rich a man is, being docked 17% of his pay is a big bite. Rice can forget endorsement income for a while also. That is a legitimate price to pay for a first time offender never charged with a crime where the victim wants to drop the matter.
He was punished fairly. If he commits a second act of a similar nature, he should be punished far more severely.