Will the NFL Ever Get it Right About Violence?


Today, the Baltimore Ravens professional football team terminated the contract of running back Ray Rice. Soon after, he was suspended indefinitely by the National Football League (NFL).

We would be cheering heartily for these actions—because Rice punched out his soon-to-be-wife, and such off-the-field violence should have serious consequences. But we’re loathe to give the NFL too much credit yet, because the facts of the case are this:

1. The assault took place back in February. A very disturbing video was released that showed Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée, Janay Palmer, out of the elevator where he had reportedly punched her, and then getting on his cell phone. Even though Rice faced criminal charges, his team didn’t drop him then, nor did the NFL take any action. Football season was over by that time, so we don’t know if he would still have been allowed to play.

2. It wasn’t until July that the NFL announced that it would take action against Rice: a two-game suspension. As Mother Jones pointed out, the NFL has suspended at least six other players for four games up to an entire season for smoking marijuana—a victimless offense.

3. On August 28, the NFL admitted it made a big whoops: Commissioner Roger Goodell admitted he “didn’t get it right” with the two-game penalty and changed the league’s domestic violence penalties to a six-game suspension for a first domestic violence offense, and a lifetime ban for a second. Perhaps even more importantly, Goodell announced in a letter to each of the 32 NFL owners, that the league would improve its education of rookies and veterans about domestic violence as well as expand resources for those under threat of such violence. Rice, however, was not given a retroactively longer suspension.

4. The final act to this drama played out today, but only because a new video of the incident was released by TMZ. It didn’t just show Rice pulling Palmer from the elevator, but showed him punching her full-force while in the elevator. No longer could anyone look away, even metaphorically. A spokesperson from the NFL said that the league office had not previously seen that video, a point that’s in dispute.

Ultimately, the NFL and the Ravens have done the right thing, but it sure took a long time to get there. And what messages have been sent along the way? That it’s less serious to punch a domestic partner than to light up a joint? That it took two to tango, and Janay Palmer was somehow complicit in getting slugged by her football-player boyfriend? That if we didn’t see the actual punch being thrown, it might not have happened—despite all evidence to the contrary?

We certainly hope the NFL has seen the light, and that other professional sports have or will adopt equally rigorous policies to protect against domestic violence.

But meanwhile, another pro football player named Ray has made the news: San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Ray McDonald was arrested for violence against his pregnant fiancée just three days after Goodell announced the new NFL policy. He is due in court September 15. And yet the 49ers let him play in their opening game of the season yesterday.

“I feel like the way the facts are and what’s known that he has the liberty to play in the game,” said coach Jim Harbaugh. Even former 49ers quarterback Steve Young, now a commentator, couldn’t believe it. He said that the NFL should immediately suspend players who have been accused of domestic violence and called out the league for waiting on the final video evidence before taking a stand:

Fundamentally, if the league is going to have a no-tolerance policy for domestic abuse, if we’re going to be an organization that has this as a perspective, we have to back it up. We can’t be backed into it with a video, with more coming out. … Any company in this country, any big company, if that happens [you’re arrested for violence] they send you home. They might pay you. But you don’t come to work until we figure this out. … You have to have no tolerance on it and mean it.

Will the NFL ever get it right?

Photo of Ray Rice by Flickr user Keith Allison under license from Creative Commons 2.0


Michele Kort is senior editor of Ms. She is the author of Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro and coeditor (with Audrey Bilger) of Here Come the Brides: Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage.