Because of a videotape released by TMZ on Feb. 19, 2014, it was public knowledge that NFL star running back Ray Rice (of the Baltimore Ravens, Super Bowl champs) had knocked out his fiancée Janay Palmer in an elevator at 4 AM on February 14 at a casino hotel and had dragged (not carried) her unconscious body into the hallway. It is appalling to see his indifference as he manhandles her limp form; but the National Football League (NFL), a $10 billion business built on “brand” and “image,” swung into action to minimize the PR problem that this created. Rice and the victim both admitted the incident, but she chose not to press charges; and matters with the criminal justice system were “fixed” so that her famous abuser was allowed to enter a pretrial program and thereby avoid jail time. Other Ravens were depicted visiting sick children in hospitals, and all was semi-forgotten.
Or was it? The NFL, and the Ravens, made a mockery of the incident by producing a piece of videotaped theatre: Rice gave a “press conference” in which he never admitted to domestic abuse; and then the couple was trotted out, once again on videotape, with Palmer (who had since married Rice) blaming herself for the incident. Still, Rice could not be allowed to just walk away and suit up for the new season—there was, after all, the videotape of him dragging her, and that could not be turned into an NFL promo.
As reported here earlier, the NFL is not bound by court decisions in the policing of its athletes. The Commissioner, Roger Goodell (salary: $44 million) decided to take action. But what sort of action, and for what purpose? Was this a moment when the NFL, already plagued by the off-field violence of its players and the evidence that its sport causes permanent brain injuries, might initiate national discussion of a violence-related issue? After all, domestic abuse extends well beyond the rosters of its players, and the behaviors of its fans, deep into the fabric of macho culture, and onward throughout the United States. A little leadership might have gone a long way.
Instead, in another bit of theatre, the handsome, earnest Commissioner was filmed handing down Rice’s punishment: a two-game suspension and a fine. For diehard NFL fans, and for those who consider domestic abuse to be a hazard of courtship and marriage, this was enough. For the rest of us, this “punishment” did not fit the crime at all; and the public outcry (and, probably, private threats by owners and advertisers) persuaded Goodell and the NFL to reconsider. A contrite Commissioner appeared once again before the cameras confessing that he had erred in this case and that, in future, such instances of brutal domestic violence by an NFL employee would earn the perpetrator a 6-game suspension, with banishment for a second offense. Somehow, this was acceptable, and the NFL’s multi-billion-dollar season went forward with all the usual hoopla and all the injuries.
Lost in all of this was the nature of the violence: a man slugging a woman so hard that she collapses in a heap of unconsciousness. This act takes place hundreds of times a day in this country; and hundreds of times it is not reported, or, if reported, it is often retracted by the victim. Domestic violence is rampant in the United States, and it is not videotaped. Usually, the evidence is a broken bone or a bad bruise, ascribed to an accidental fall or an unseen door. Absent the “instant replay” of the actual criminal violence, it seems that the public is willing to pretend, in every state and town, that such violence is somehow ambiguous, that maybe it didn’t happen as a result of someone striking someone else, that the “victim” really did trip and fall. And in the instance of Ray and Shanay, even when he drags her limp body out of an elevator, people seem willing to suspend their logical faculties and to let the power of cooked-up PR theater overwhelm their common sense.
Then came the knock-out videotape.
TMZ released another video, showing Rice and Palmer in the elevator jostling each other, and then Rice, a professional athlete in a violent sport, decking her with a punch to the face. This video changed everything. Why? Before its release, was there any question about what Rice had done to Palmer? How does the videotape make his crime any more real? Rice had already admitted hitting her, yet his team backed him up and the NFL/public forgave him, and he was ready to play in two more weeks; suddenly, with the videotape showing the reality of a strong man beating up a woman, the Ravens fired him and the NFL suspended him. Evidently, until the release of this video, they had been in profound denial, in which it was not possible to connect (a) the dragging-out of an unconscious body with (b) the violent incident that had caused her to collapse. Did someone have to spell it out, for the NFL and the Baltimore Ravens and the American public, as to what “knocking her out in the elevator” really meant? The sickening answer is, “yes.”
It is not my place to divine the deepest meanings of this, or what it says about us as a society. I conclude that we’re staring at too many screens and we’re having trouble imagining things that are not depicted for us. It also seems that we’re having trouble with the concept of violence as entertainment, and with athletes and other celebrities as exempt from our laws. As with all forms of sport or physical activity, too many of us are fans instead of participants, and too many fans are willing to excuse anything that might interfere with the enjoyment of their favorite spectacles (and “fantasy leagues”). Football is America’s favorite sport, and it got there by the artful televising of the violence inherent in the game. Perhaps, this year, every televised broadcast of an NFL football game should begin with a replay of Ray Rice’s knockout blow in that elevator, and a reminder that there is an epidemic in this country.
Maybe there is something good to be said about the NFL if it has become a lens that we can look through to see what domestic violence actually looks like, and how it tends to tear people apart, and how—as with the Sandusky child-abuse scandal and the Vick dog-abuse scandal and the Hernandez murder-scandal and the spate of new NFL domestic violence scandals—it forces us to look at things we’d rather not see, and to deal with our own denial. This whole sordid episode has reminded us of the primacy of money and image and power of videotape; but one does not need to watch the videotape to grasp the idea that the NFL’s close encounters with domestic violence also have a lot to tell us about who we are and what we seem to stand for.