There is literally nothing one can say in defense of Ray Rice, the Baltimore running back just suspended two games for assaulting his then girlfriend/now wife Janay Palmer, the aftermath of which was caught on tape as Rice dragged a lifeless Palmer out of a hotel elevator. Even though charges were dropped, thanks largely to Palmer’s unwillingness to press them, the verdict on Rice’s character is long decided. The fact is and will remain that a brutish NFL star pulled an inert female out of an elevator as if she were a piece of luggage, an obvious victim of his brutality.
Beyond the legal potential, none of which came to fruition, Rice’s inhumanity represents an unquestionable PR situation for the NFL. If affirms the stereotype that NFL athletes are deviant psychopaths, and that football’s on-field violence seeps into real life. While there’s no conclusive evidence that athletes are in fact more violent than their pedestrian counterparts, perception becomes reality, a problem for an industry that thrives on public perception.
What’s come under equal scrutiny of Rice’s actions is the ensuing response from the NFL commissioner’s office, which suspended Rice for two regular season games. Put into context, former NY Giant Will Hill has been suspended the better part of a decade for repeatedly smoking marijuana. And Terelle Pryor was suspended five games for manipulating his own draft eligibility by getting free tattoos. In that light, commissioner Roger Goodell’s sentence seems shockingly light, if not offensive.
Goodell isn’t the only public figure to come under considerable scrutiny. ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith was suspended a week from the network for his insensitive comments on-air about the incident, insisting that women should do their part not to provoke event like these. In all fairness to Smith, he did say this in the context of profusely denouncing domestic abuse, but will still suffer the entirety of his remarks. Whether Smith’s suspension is too long or Rice’s too short is up for debate; what isn’t is the inherent corporate risk of creating sports programming built upon endless arguing. At some point, your mouth starts working faster than your brain.
The league will easily survive this saga – in fact, Ravens fans gave Ray Rice a standing ovation at practice this week. Once the games begin, particularly after Rice serves his mini-suspension, we’ll long forget it ever happened. If you need convincing, spend some time looking at the NFL police blotter, none of which is tied to TV ratings.
Two things seem remarkable in this event’s aftermath. First, it’s amazing how the NFL has both draped itself in morality and shielded itself from its hypocrisy. On the one hand, the league preaches God and country, making military support and salute part of its corporate mission and privileging prayer on the field after games. It’s enlisted moms, soldiers, teachers, civic leaders, and pretty much anyone who can affirm the league’s place as part of American divinity, helping position the game as a national symbol of virtue.
On the other hand, the league has seemingly isolated itself from its own immorality, from on-field brutality to the character of its personnel. While the league dignifies itself as a place of American decency, its players can be anything but, with seemingly no fracture of the great NFL myth, where the whole is somehow much greater than the sum of its parts. For all the current critique and criticism of the league, its players and its commissioner, the NFL economic engine won’t miss a beat. In fact, two months from now, Ray Rice will be just another guy on an NFL roster, imperceptible from another because of his gladiator like uniform, shielding both his body and his employer, oddly enough.
It’s a great business strategy, really, one that’s seemingly impossible to replicate. If GM makes faulty cars, the company takes a hit. Same goes with Pepsi, and Xerox, and so on. Not the NFL. It’s not just recession proof. It’s personnel proof. That must be nice luxury to have.
But while the league itself is safe, it’s everyone else that need be careful. That’s what Stephen A. Smith discovered, quickly realizing the difference between someone in the league and someone who talks about it. Not that he didn’t deserve all he got and likely more. It’s just that compared to the wrist slap given to Ray Rice, the whole world is relative.
There is absolutely no defense for Ray Rice, or the NFL itself. Sadly it seems, they don’t seem to need one.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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