As a student affairs practitioner, it has occurred to me this week watching the Ray Rice fiasco unfold that, in most university settings, things would be handled drastically differently. Unfortunately I do have to use the word “most” as a modifier here, because there are still a number of large Division One FBS programs conducting themselves more like the Ravens and the NFL, despite the federal government’s direction and justified intrusion into these matters. So with that modifier in place, in most cases Mr. Rice would be charged with physical abuse (in this case a Title IX offense) and be subjected to a thorough investigation and adjudication process. Mr. Rice’s due process would be protected, and there would also be a thorough investigation… not the shoddy and incomplete investigation conducted by the National Football League. And, simply based on the video evidence that I have seen with my own eyes, I am presuming that Mr. Rice would be found in violation of university policies. The sanctioning phase would consider the nature of his offense, his prior history, institutional precedence, and other factors. Based solely on the nature of the offense, in my professional judgment I think it is safe to say that Mr. Rice would be expelled from school.
Beyond just addressing Mr. Rice’s behavior in proportion to his offense, the sanction would have the added benefit of being consistent with sanctions for other offenses. At most institutions, we don’t throw students out of school for a semester for a first drug violation, nor do we typically allow those who serve time for vehicular manslaughter and other crimes to immediately return to a campus environment without great assurance that the guilty party no longer presents a threat to other members of the community.
If only life in the NFL came close to these standards.
I am not suggesting college discipline is perfect. Goodness knows the Title IX developments in this country over the past five years have made it clear that we have a long way to go. But when I compare the conduct process to the criminal process, I am convinced that we fare pretty well, particularly in serious cases. Further, when you compare our practices to those of the NFL, it is clear to any informed perspective that university systems are far more transparent, far more consistent, and far more interested in addressing right and wrong.
There are a number of people and entities that bear responsibility in this case, so allow me to walk through each along with my adjoining concerns.
Ray Rice – Let’s begin with the lead villain in this case and the primary responsible party. Here we have a professional athlete, physically far bigger and stronger than his former fiancee and current wife, who after an exchange of relatively minor blows and after being spat upon, viciously hit Janay Palmer, causing her to be slammed into a railing and knocked unconscious. Rice then proceeded to drag Ms. Palmer like a sack of potatoes into the lobby while leaving her legs dangling in the path of the elevator doors. Rice’s behaviors are outrageous, dangerous, and only serve to reinforce negative and inaccurate stereotypes about both athletes and black males. Still worse, after Rice sobered up he offered sheepish apologies in which he took “full responsibility” but failed to say what he took responsibility for or what the consequences of his actions were. Truth be told, if Ray Rice truly took full responsibility for his actions, the circus that followed would not have been necessary.
Baltimore Ravens – As thrilled as I was to see the Ravens release Rice, upon further review I have to temper my belief that the Ravens ever really chose to do the “right” thing, instead only doing the “necessary” thing when they were presented with no other options. Let’s look at the timeline:
– February 15 – Incident takes place
– February 19 – TMZ releases external video showing Rice dragging Palmer out of the elevator
– February 21 – Ravens’ Coach John Harbaugh defends Rice’s character, saying he could not foresee Rice not being a part of the Ravens in 2014
– March 5 – Harbaugh announces that Rice and Palmer will be attending a couples seminar, adding “Ray has told me his side of it, and everything we’ve seen so far is very consistent with what he said.”
– March 27 – Rice is indicted by a grand jury for third-degree aggravated assault. The Ravens then issue a statement: “This is part of the due process for Ray. We know there is more to Ray Rice than this one incident.”
– May 20 – Rice is accepted into the pre-trial program and will avoid prosecution. Upon successful completion, Rice will have his charges dismissed. The Ravens share the happy news with their fans.
– May 23 – Rice and Palmer address the media from the Ravens practice facility. The Ravens live-tweet the event, including a tweet that states, “Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident.” This tweet remained on the Ravens website until his release from the team.
– June 16 – Rice meets with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell
– July 27 – The NFL suspends Rice for two games. Ravens’ General Manager Ozzie Newsome calls the punishment “significant” but “fair” and continues to defend Rice’s character.
– July 28 – Rice receives a standing ovation from fans at training camp.
– August 1 – Goodell defends his decision to suspend Rice for only two games. Goodell states, “I take into account all of the information before I make a decision on what the discipline will be. In this case, there was no discipline by the criminal justice system. They put him in that diversionary program.”
– August 28 – After taking significant criticism for the decision, the NFL announces much more stringent penalties for personal conduct violations. Under the new policy, cases involving assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault that involve physical force “will be subject to a suspension without pay of six games for a first offense.” A second offense will result in banishment from the NFL for at least one year. An individual can petition for reinstatement after one year, but “there will be no presumption or assurance that the petition will be granted.” The NFL notes that the policy applies to all NFL personnel and not just players.
Goodell went on to acknowledge that he had mishandled previous cases of domestic violence. Goodell stated, “At times, however, and despite our best efforts, we fall short of our goals. We clearly did so in response to a recent incident of domestic violence. We allowed our standards to fall below where they should be and lost an important opportunity to emphasize our strong stance on a critical issue and the effective programs we have in place. My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn’t get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.”
– September 8 – TMZ releases the internal elevator video. Within hours, Rice is cut from the team and suspended indefinitely by the NFL. Harbaugh said, “The video is something we saw for the first time today. It changed things, of course… When someone you care about does wrong, and is faced with the consequences of doing wrong, and rightfully so, it is tough, it is hurtful.”
The ugly truth is that at every turn, the Ravens made miscue after miscue until September 8. Along the way, Newsome said he felt “very good about Rice’s side of the story.” Based on what? Owner Steve Bisciotti said he supported Rice and Rice would remain a part of the team. Why? Harbaugh called Rice “a heck of a guy” and said he stood behind him. Again, based on what? And Kevin Byrne, the team’s senior vice president of public and community relations, wrote that he still liked Rice “a lot” and compared the incident to a child making a mistake. Seriously?
Harbaugh said that he, Newsome, and Team President Dick Cass met to discuss the situation once the TMZ video was released. They knew they had no option but to cut Rice. Harbaugh was asked whether or not he was misled by Rice and responded that he didn’t “want to get into all of that…,” but it is precisely “all of that” that matters. Did Rice lie to the Ravens, and the Ravens simply accepted his lie blindly? Or did the Ravens simply aid in the minimization of Rice’s actions because it was more important to have a star player on the field than it was to learn the truth? This is an important question that Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens’ brass should be held accountable for.
National Football League (specifically King Roger Goodell) – At the top of the pecking order, we have the person not only responsible for the most massive under-reaction possible, but also the individual who makes the NFL’s double standards possible. We can begin with the shoddy manner in which both the NFL and the Ravens conducted their alleged investigations. According to TMZ, neither the NFL nor the Ravens ever bothered to ask the casino for a copy of the videotape. The NFL shot back with the statement that it asked law enforcement agencies for videos. But the NFL has the responsibility to conduct its own investigation in order to enforce its own policies, and failed miserably in this case. The failure is even more obvious when one understands that NFL Security is comprised of former law enforcement officials, all of whom know how to get their hands on such materials. But it took TMZ writing a check for the truth to emerge. If the video is truly news to the NFL and to the Ravens, then this proves the NFL to be incapable of managing its own business. If the NFL or the Ravens have seen this video previously, then yesterday’s events call them out as liars who simply hoped the video would never surface to the public. In either case, both the NFL and the Ravens failed themselves, failed Ray Rice, failed Janay Rice, failed their fans, and failed society at large.
In the past, Roger Goodell has claimed his responsibility to “protect the shield” with regard to the conduct of NFL players and personnel. Yet decision after decision has reflected his utter inability to do so with consistency, with integrity, or with fairness in process. As an NFL fan, and has someone who does not hold the NFL responsible for the actions of its players, I am dismayed by what Roger Goodell thinks of as due process, consistent enforcement, or proportional response. His responses to alcohol and drug violations have been all over the map. But this one domestic violence case has done more damage to the NFL’s “shield” than all of those cases combined. How can Goodell have not acquired the video? How could Goodell pass judgment on Rice without knowing what he was passing judgment on? These same questions apply to Ravens owner Stephen Bisciotti, general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach John Harbuagh. How could each of these individuals pass this off as a simple mistake worthy of a two game suspension? Finally, the officials in Atlantic City who allowed Rice into a diversion program should be taken to task as well. In my view, no reasonable individual would view that tape and believe that Rice does not deserve full criminal prosecution.
Pro Football Talk (among others) has called for a special investigation into the manner in which this case was handled, and they are right. According to Mike Florio at PFT,
“The outside investigation needs to begin with the Ravens and to continue with the league office. The NFL needs to find out exactly what the Ravens knew, when they knew it, what they believed, what they assumed, whether they saw the tape, whether they didn’t see the tape, and all other facts and circumstances regarding the manner in which the Ravens collected all facts and circumstances relating to the Rice case.
Then, the outside investigation needs to turn over every relevant stone at 345 Park Avenue, finding out what the league knew, when the league knew it, what the league did in order to know things, what the league didn’t do in order to know things, and everything else that would help the league office, the owners, and the public understand how such a seemingly straightforward situation became so badly bungled.”
Florio is right. While the NFL is considered a private business, it is America’s new national pastime and it is a public product that enjoys its success on the backs of NFL fans and advertisers. And we have a right to know how the product that we are spending our hard earned money on is being operated, particular when it has a direct correlation to issues of social justice in this nation. Rather than circling its proverbial wagons, the NFL should be taking responsibility for its own actions and insuring that such mistakes will be prevented in the future.
My new form of fantasy football is the fantasy that I could single-handedly wipe out the current NFL protocols for the investigation and adjudication of personal conduct matters and create a system that insures fairness for all involved parties, provide thorough investigations, and offers outcomes that are consistent with both the behavior involved and the status of the offender. The NFL would never turn to an outsider like me, but I can dream. Goodness (or Goodell) knows I couldn’t do any worse than the NFL did in this case.
Update (9/9/14) – Late today, Ravens’ owner Steve Bisciotti apologized for not obtaining the internal elevator video. Bisciotti said, “Seeing that video changed everything. We should have seen it earlier. We should have pursued our own investigation more vigorously. We didn’t, and we were wrong.” This admission seems to reinforce my belief that either the Ravens or the NFL (or both) had it within their means to identify that a video existed (which the NFL admitted earlier today) and that efforts to secure the video were either nonexistent or ineffective.
Update (9/10/14) – A law enforcement official asserted today that the internal elevator tape was sent to the NFL in April and that delivery was confirmed. If this is true, the NFL is either lying or completely incompetent. In either case, it is beginning to feel as though the only possible way in which the NFL can regain its credibility is to lose Roger Goodell as its Commissioner.
Note: A variety of media sources were utilized to collect the quotes used in this entry. They have been edited and blended together, but in some cases direct quotes are utilized.