We, America, Created Ray Rice

Ray Rice Press Conference

Ray Rice faced the media today for the first time since he knocked his fiancee unconscious and dragged her to his hotel room. I didn’t watch; I have little interest in hearing questions from the same media that insists upon calling Rice an “alleged” woman beater even though he was literally caught on tape and even though he’s essentially admitted doing it. Neither do I care to hear his pre-canned answers.

Everyone right now is pretending outrage that Rice was only suspended for 2 games despite being caught on tape brutally assaulting a woman. And I agree that it is indeed an outrageously light sentence. What I don’t get is why anyone pretends surprise. After all, after the video tape surfaced but before Rice had gone to court or taken any punishment at all, Ravens head coach and apparent scumbag John Harbaugh had already set the tone for how Rice would be treated by his employer (keeping in mind that what we’re discussing is a man who’s just been caught on video knocking a woman unconscious and dragging her down a hotel hallway):

“Ray and I are real close,” Harbaugh said. “We have been for a long time, so it’s an easy conversation to have. I love Janay (ed. – Rice’s then-fiancee). She’s a great person.

“The two people obviously have a couple issues that they have to work through, and they’re both committed to doing that. That was the main takeaway for me from the conversation. They understand their own issues. They’re getting a lot of counseling and those kinds of things, so I think that’s really positive. That was the main takeaway.”

* * *

“There are a lot of facts and a process that has to be worked through in anything like this,” Harbaugh said. “There are a lot of question marks. But Ray’s character, you guys know his character. So you start with that.”

Harbaugh didn’t want to go too light on his public support of a guy who brutally assaulted his now wife, Harbaugh yesterday upped the ante.

“I hate what happened. What happened was wrong. Flat out,” Harbaugh told reporters after Wednesday’s training camp practice. “The thing I appreciate about it is how Ray has handled it afterward by acknowledging it was wrong and he’ll do everything he can do to make it right. That’s what you ask for when someone does a wrong thing. So, I’m proud of him for that.”

* * *

“I’m there for Ray as a friend and I also think an older male figure in his life and try to give him advice and wisdom,” Harbaugh said. “And just be there for him. A friend is born from adversity. That’s what it is really about with Ray. I love the way he’s handled it.”

A reasonable person might ask how we got to this point, that the punishment for such an egregious and public offense – an offense which is the subject of literally no factual dispute about its particulars – is suspension from two games of playing football. A good answer to this question can be found in how Rice was received by the Ravens’ fanbase, who after all have a lot of practice embracing good football players who are terrible human beings:

On Monday, Rice made his first major public appearance since being suspended two games for domestic assault, a mild punishment for which the league has received plenty of deserved criticism. As he jogged onto the field at M&T Bank Stadium, the crowd of Ravens fans gave the running back a standing ovation.

Many beat writers tweeted the reaction, but the news was also prominently featured on the front page of the Ravens’ website, which became news in itself. If the NFL’s response to the backlash has been characteristically tone-deaf, the Ravens managed to top that with a gushing post on fans embracing an embattled player without any explicit mention of the offense for which he’s come under fire.

Ravens staff writer Ryan Mink noted that Rice’s “hometown fans showed him a lot of love” despite the “national scrutiny” around his case. Rice showed “his fun-loving side” when he interacted with fans, and Mink pointed out, as any good NFL toady would, that “Rice jerseys sprinkled the crowd, worn by both males and females.”

And why wouldn’t they? Rice isn’t even nearly the most egregious example of a player who has gone completely off the rails and nonetheless enjoyed a successful NFL career. In 1998, Leonard Little killed a woman while driving drunk out of his mind and was convicted of vehicular manslaughter. In 2004, having learned his lesson, he was caught by police driving 23 miles an hour of the speed limit – while drunk. For this offense, the NFL suspended him exactly zero games. Which is to say nothing of the NFL’s coddling of Ray Lewis, et al. (By way of contrast, the NFL has suspended Josh Gordon for an entire year for smoking pot).

We all collectively wring our hands at this state of affairs and wonder aloud to friends and coworkers how the NFL can possibly let the behavior of these athletes go so unchecked. And then we answer the question by turning on our TVs every Sunday and flooding the zone with purchases of NFL gear. Ray Rice’s jersey is the number one seller for all Ravens apparel. The NFL has learned in recent history that there is literally nothing either the league or its players can do to make us stop watching games, or buying tickets and licensed merchandise.

This is not a problem of course that is unique to the NFL. A real argument can be made that MLB’s record on domestic violence is worse than the NFL’s. Other sports definitely have had problems with poor athlete behavior. What makes the NFL unique is that it seems uniquely impervious to scandal – not a horribly ugly and unjustified lockout, not mounting evidence that the game is destructive to the long term health of its players, not a commissioner who is obviously ham handed and borderline incompetent. The product the NFL puts on the field is so immune to ordinary market forces that are ordinarily affected by brand tarnishment that the NFL can be excused for thinking that they can suspend Ray Rice for a laughably short length of time without facing backlash from the public in the one area that matters to the NFL – advertising and merchandising revenue.

They can be excused for thinking that mainly because the evidence thus far has shown that it’s the truth.