Latest Scapegoat

Hey NFL Fans: Ray Rice Isn’t the Problem. You Are.

Before football fans get too sanctimonious about the Ray Rice wrist slap, they should worry about their complicity in football’s culture of violence.

Danny Moloshok / Reuters

By now, most every football fan in America (and lots of non-fans) will have read about the arrest of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for an altercation with Janay Palmer, his former fiancé and current wife. The fight took place in February at a resort casino in Atlantic City called Revel.

According to the police report summary of the incident, “After reviewing surveillance footage it appeared both parties were involved in a physical altercation. The complaint summons indicates that both Rich [sic] and Palmer struck each other with their hands.” The report goes on to note that, “Ms. Palmer and Mr. Rice refused any medical attention as no injuries were reported by either party.”

What the report fails to note is that Rice knocked Ms. Palmer unconscious, as a subsequently released video attests. (You might want to skip the video, unless you enjoy watching a man who has just knocked out his fiancé attempt to drag her out of an elevator.)

Rice managed to avoid jail time by entering a pretrial diversionary program. He also met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to explain the incident.

Goodell, a man who recently suspended wide receiver Josh Gordon 16 games for the high crime of smoking pot, has now rendered his verdict. Ray Rice is suspended for … two games.

There are any number of reasons to be outraged about this, and over the next few days we will hear sports pundits mouthing most of them.

We will hear all about how despicable Rice himself is, and how craven Goodell is for protecting the NFL’s bottom line. We will hear about the dark prerogatives granted to star athletes, and football players in particular. We will hear about how the NFL’s lenience is sending a powerful message, particularly to the 1.3 million American women who will be assaulted by their partners this year, many of whom refuse to report the abuse precisely because they fear the authorities won’t protect them.

All these objections are true enough.

But they are also part of a larger cover-up that plays out every time an NFL player gets caught committing a violent crime, especially one with a female victim.

The pattern has become nauseatingly familiar. The sports media excoriates the player in question (and sometimes the NFL or NCAA) and fans get to share in the righteous indignation. Then, in a few weeks or months, we go back to watching the player. Guys like Rice become convenient scapegoats.

What sports pundits rarely bother to do is confront themselves, or their audiences, about their complicity in this pattern.

After all, as a nation we worship football players specifically because they embody an ideal of hyper-masculinity that is inherently violent and impulsive. Football is a world where the basic role of the female is ornamental, at best.

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It’s the fans who create and sustain this ideal. We’re the ones who spend billions of dollars and hours watching the game.

And we’re the reason why, from a young age, boys with the required talent and drive are segregated from the rest of the population and granted the privileges of an effective warrior class. We’re the reason so many players come to feel they are above the law: because as a culture we make them feel as if they are.

It is foolish to think that the mindset of brutality and entitlement that has governed their identity for years simply clicks off when they shed their uniform.

Take a look at the infamous episode in Steubenville, Ohio, in which two star football players not only sexually abused a drunk girl, but shared video and images of the abuse with their friends.

Or consider the case of Florida State quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston. In December 2012, a fellow undergrad accused Winston of raping her. There was even physical evidence to support her allegations.

But the Tallahassee police detective assigned to the case appears to have conducted no real investigation, and even allegedly warned the young woman’s attorney not to pursue charges. Despite a federal law requiring colleges to investigate all charges of sexual assault against students, FSU itself did virtually nothing. Everyone wanted to keep Winston on the field, racking up wins and alumni donations.

All the moralizing and gravitas that accompanies a star player being arrested should be viewed as a form of Kabuki theater. It’s how sports media and fans purge ourselves of the deeper corruptions inherent in our consumption of the game.

If you’re truly disgusted by what Ray Rice did to his fiancé, and by the NFL’s response, then stop paying them to entertain you.

And if you’re not willing to do that, quit shaking your head at another athlete led astray and admit that you’re part of the larger system that greased his path.

Steve Almond is the author of the new book Against Football.