Wednesday, September 24, 2014

My 3 Cents On Ray Rice and the NFL

“We are in an era in which being well-rounded is perhaps more important than ever before, and nobody in the NFL is more versatile and efficient than Baltimore’s starting running back. I believe that Ray Rice will be recognized as the clear-cut best running back in football by the end of the season, primarily because he is already the best running back in football.”

Bill Barnwell wrote those words just over two years ago. Since we have the advantage of perfect hindsight, we can chuckle at our how wildly things have changed since then. One of the curses of recording your thoughts and opinions for a living is that they are always there to haunt you, but when Barnwell wrote this post it wasn’t an outrageous claim.

Adrian Peterson was rehabbing a torn knee (little did we know about his superhuman ability to recover from career-ending injuries) and Rice was coming off of a year when he accumulated over 2,000 yards from scrimmage for the second time in four seasons. He had the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield and a quarterback who was more than willing to dump passes off . And he was only 25 years old.

Fast forward to present day and Rice is little more than a pariah in the league. Instead of being remembered for  “4th and Forever” his name is synonymous with something much, much more negative. No one in this story comes off well. Rice for his actions, the NFL and the Ravens for their reactions all share blame in this mess.

With great reason, of course.  Ray Rice deserved to be suspended, not for two games, but for at least six. Did he deserve to be run out of football indefinitely?  No.  Josh Brent killed a teammate in an alcohol-related car crash and was suspended from the league for 10 games. Donte Stallworth pled guilty to DUI-manslaughter and was suspended for one season. Officially, although he is responsible for half of the murders in the state of Florida, Aaron Hernandez is not suspended from the NFL.  Any team wanting to sign the former Patriot would have to make quite a compelling case to get approval from Roger Goddell.

So why did the hammer come down on Rice, a player with no legal trouble in the past and a rather extensive history of community service?  I would venture that we are seeing the power of video.  The only difference between Rice’s case and all of the other domestic violence cases is that his actions are readily available for all to see.

There was never any doubt at what had happened. It was always accepted that Ray Rice knocked out his fiancée in an elevator and then dragged her unconscious body out. Nothing changed once the full video came out. However, before the video - two games, after the video - indefinite suspension.

It doesn’t matter if Goddell or his lackeys saw the video of the actual punch. They are reasonably intelligent men (at least we think they are). I’m pretty sure that they figured out what happened even before meeting with Rice and his now-wife. It doesn’t even matter if Ray Rice lied to them about the exact events that happened in the elevator.  He admitted he hit her, screw the build up to what led to the left hook. Jay-Z proved that you can be in an elevator with a violent female and not resort to knocking her out.

There is no doubt that the NFL first erred in going to light on Rice’s suspension. If they had come down with an 6 or 8 game suspension, much of the trouble that they are going through right now would have been avoided. If that had been the official suspension, there is a good chance that Ray Rice would still be a member of the Ravens, and Goddell wouldn’t be worrying about his future employment and concussions would be back to being the number one reason to feel guilty about being a fan of the NFL.

They didn’t help their situation by allowing Greg Hardy to play in week one. The same Greg Hardy who was found guilty of two counts of domestic violence this summer.  Hardy is currently appealing the ruling (something Rice isn’t doing) and has been moved to the NFL exempt list (a kind of purgatory where a player isn’t allowed to play, but is still able to cash his paycheck) while the team does its “due diligence” on the matter.

If there was no video of Rice hitting his domestic partner would he be in the same boat as Hardy?  We are a visual culture. Reading or hearing about events is never going to impact us like seeing them. For whatever reason actually seeing something leaves such little doubt. It’s just human nature.  It goes back to the Bible (if you’re one for religion). Did Thomas believe the other disciples that Jesus had popped out of the cave after a couple of days? Nope, he had to see him for himself, not only that, he had to see the nail wounds as well before he would believe their story. Pictures or get the f*ck out, I guess.

It’s a sad fact that domestic violence doesn’t occur only among football players. Everyday someone is getting arrested for incidents similar to what the Rices went through. And the truth is, most of the convicted receive similar punishments. If a plumber hits his wife during an argument, chances are he doesn’t lose his job.

It’s easy to blame the violence on the “culture of the NFL” but it happens in all sports, in all walks of life. Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, Chris Brown and Sean Penn have all seen their names in the paper because of domestic violence issues and as far as I know none of them have played a down of football.

I asked a Human Resource professional, “If an employee [of your company] is convicted of a crime..say domestic violence…does that give you the grounds to terminate them?”

Their response, “Not necessarily….If {they} are charged - not work - related. I can’t do anything. However, time you will serve or if the charge directly relates to your job then we can part ways as we can’t keep your job while you are in jail or put the {business} in jeopardy”

They did follow up with an important side note - “We are not a company that uses our associates as the face of the company.”

There in lies the crux of the problem for the Ravens and the NFL.  Ray Rice is considered a “face” of the NFL. He is in their advertisements, their video games, their endorsed movies (a photo of Ray Rice appears during the end credits of “Draft Day”) so for him to be embroiled in a high-profile does put the NFL in jeopardy.

Any team that employs Ray Rice (and I think someone will sign him next year) is going to take a hell of a chance. Not only in incurring the wrath of the public, but also in signing a 28-year-old running back with declining numbers.

It‘s interesting that an organization that has stood behind players with nefarious actions in the past would be so quick to cut their number one running back. Could the Ravens be callously using this an opportunity to jettison a large financial commitment? Sure they take a huge cap hit next season, but they do so without any fan backlash at all.

Since Barnwell wrote his article, not only has Rice not been the best running back in the league, he’s barely been average. While he should be in the prime of his career, several seasons to go before that magic age of 32 when running backs fall off the table, he has racked up a tremendous amount of use in the NFL. While being a multi-use back is great for offenses and fantasy football (PPR for life!) all of those extra tackles do add a lot of wear and tear to an athlete.

The initial reaction by the league and the Minnesota Vikings to Adrian Peterson’s child disciplining techniques shows that the league is amazingly tone deaf when it comes to these types of issues. Here you are in the middle of getting raked over the coals for a player committing violence upon a member of their family and a similar situation arises and the response is…. “Eh, maybe we’ll suspend him.”

Since he hasn’t been tried in court yet, but has admitted to the discipline placing him on the exempt list actually makes since (sure it took them awhile to get there, but at least they got it right).  And for the record the “We do things different in the South” defense is a load of horse shit. As is the “That’s the way I was raised” defense. If my dad beat the shit out of me growing up (which he didn’t) it wouldn’t give me the right to continue the cycle.

Of course I can see why the Vikings might want to go a little lenient on Peterson. If I was the owner of a team that had Christian Ponder as my starting quarterback I would do everything I could to keep my superstar running back on the field.

In the end, I have no problems with watching NFL games on Sunday (other than getting time off of work to do it). I long ago made peace with the fact that athletes aren’t role models or heroes. You can’t really follow boxing without having to accept that people are assholes. I have to chuckle every time I hear someone talk about a player doing things “the right way”. All that does is set them up for a future disappointment. I’m sure Russell Wilson is a great guy, but does he need Peter King writing about Wilson needing to be “front and center” for the public to regain its trust in the league.

Ray Rice’s name will slide to the back pages soon enough. Just like Michael Vick, Ritchie Incognito and Lance Armstrong’s names did. It’s just another part of human nature to for us to let time dim the outrage. Its extremely possible that he finds away to bring some good out of this. More recently on Grantland, Bill Simmons wrote a poignant column about how it feels to be a parent of child in pain and how he couldn’t understand how someone would want to cause that.  In the passage he lays out a scenario for Peterson that would work just as well for Rice:

“Eventually someone will convince Peterson that he needs therapy, and that he will become an advocate for child abuse. Peterson will follow that person’s instructions for one of two reasons: He wants to save his football career or he understands that he failed as a parent and a human being….One or both of those reasons will be genuine”

Replace Peterson with Rice and replace child abuse for domestic abuse and that sums up the future for Ray Rice.