Day by day, the National Football League is transforming into less of a sport and more of a full-time damage control operation. Today’s crisis is the release from TMZ Sports of the previously unseen footage of Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens running back, beating his then-fiancée and current wife in an elevator until she was unconscious.
Before Monday morning’s revelation, the public had gotten only a glimpse of the February attack’s aftermath, when Rice dragged her body like a particularly cumbersome sack of potatoes into the lobby of the Revel casino. You can watch the brutal crime itself here, but it’s really not necessary. As with the recent hacked celebrity photos, the victim did not consent to this material being made public. If you feel the need to respect Jennifer Lawrence’s privacy, I strongly urge that you do the same for Janay Rice. In February, witnesses told Deadspin that Ray Rice threw an “uppercut” and struck her “like he [would punch] a guy.” Take my word for it that that’s what occurred.
As a result of this second tape, the Ravens terminated Rice’s contract Monday afternoon. Seemingly a microsecond later, the word came down that the NFL was suspending him indefinitely.
Here’s where the story gets awfully muddled, and whom you believe depends a great deal on what flavor of spin you find the most palatable. League officials, of course, are claiming that the second tape was news to them. “We requested from law enforcement all information about the incident, including the video from inside the elevator,” said Greg Aiello, a spokesman for the NFL. “That video was not made available to us and no one in our office has seen it until today.”
Of course, as Think Progress’s Travis Waldron writes, “according to reports from Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, and others, both the police and the NFL had seen this video too.” (King has since backtracked on his story.)
TMZ’s Harvey Levin also said his site will release news Tuesday that the NFL knew about the Rice video and turned a blind eye. If true, this is a cover-up of Nixonian proportions, and the question will become, “What did Roger Goodell know and when did he know it?”
Why, for example, wouldn’t the NFL use every ounce of leverage that America’s most popular and powerful sport possesses to pry the tape from the New Jersey police force? If NFL officials really had “reviewed all the materials, the information” relative to the case,” as was claimed by Adolpho Birch, the league’s executive vice president of labor policy and government affairs, not knowing that the second tape existed would be difficult. The answer, of course, is that they didn’t want to see it, before or after Goodell levied the initial two-game suspension.
They wanted to believe Rice and his wife when the couple was interviewed and Rice lied about what transpired, claiming that he was “attacked.” It seems clear that is what Rice told his teammates, banking on the hope that the second tape would never see the light of day. As Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman reported earlier Monday, “What was becoming clear was not only the outrage of the viciousness of the attack—but also that Rice had misled them, and that, ‘Rice had told teammates that he had no choice but to defend himself that day in the elevator.’”
Honestly, it doesn’t make much of a difference. Once the NFL and the Ravens found out about Rice’s crime—lack of criminal charges notwithstanding—he should’ve been gone. The league’s and the team’s damage control strategy, naturally, was to go the other way, from the awfully staged press conference back in May to this Ravens tweet that tried to shunt the blame onto the victim—“Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played on the night of the incident”—which was only deleted Monday, to head coach John Harbaugh’s post-initial suspension quote: “I stand behind Ray, he’s a heck of a guy, he’s done everything right since.”
So if you’re heartened by Monday’s punishment, it’s important to remind yourself that it’s all just so much spin born out of the NFL’s clumsy arrogance and general lack of humanity. The suspension, both the inadequate two-gamer and Monday’s release and indefinite ban, doesn’t change the fact that the NFL doesn’t care about domestic violence. It didn’t care when Jovan Belcher shot his wife. It does not care that Ray McDonald suited up this weekend for the San Francisco 49ers or Greg Hardy did the same for the Carolina Panthers. If the second tape weren’t being played and replayed horridly on screens everywhere, Rice would be getting ready for practice come Friday.
For now, Rice is gone, and the NFL will point to its new zero-tolerance policy and shake its head sadly. Don’t buy it. That’s not morality. That’s damage control. For non-fans, the public face of the league isn’t what remains a beautiful, exciting game but an arrogant doof who insists on holding on to a racist slur of a name or the continuing efforts to conceal the mounting pile of bodies/ex-employees suffering from various forms of chronic brain trauma. For fans—and yes, I still count myself as one; if you want to call me a hypocrite, go ahead—there’s a choice. You can either consume this plasticky PR nonsense and keep watching, or you can walk away. Sad to say, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that there is no way to be a fan of football without sticking your head in the sand.
But all the damage control in the world can’t undo the damage to the NFL, Goodell’s credibility, and, more important, Janay Rice. I just hope she’s somewhere safe.