Conversations Not Had

Considering the media coverage of Ray Rice

by Zeve Sanderson

published October 3, 2014

On February 15, Ray Rice was arrested for domestic violence involving his then-fiancée, now-wife Janay Palmer. On May 21, prosecutors dropped the charges of aggravated assault, allowing Rice to attend a one-year intervention program in lieu of possible jail time, an alternative that was granted in less than one percent of domestic violence cases in New Jersey over the past three years. On July 24, the NFL, led by commissioner Roger Goddell, suspended Rice for two games because of the incident. On September 8, TMZ released the now-famous video of the violent attack. The nation watched—and then re-watched again and again with increasing horror—Rice knock Palmer unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator. His single left hook propelled her head into the lift’s metal railing, leaving her sprawled, unconscious, next to her unconcerned fiancée. Rice waited to reach his destined floor, and then he dragged her body into the hallway, by the hair.

Generally, the media response was appropriately unrelenting, unforgiving, and irate. Little attention was paid to Rice himself, for the video both explained and indicted. Instead, the narrative that emerged concerned the initial two-day suspension, which was increased to an indefinite suspension after the video leaked. Writers from The New Yorker to SB Nation castigated the NFL for doling out such a soft punishment in July, and many called for Goodell’s firing. Goodell maintained, and still does, that he never saw the video before its TMZ release. His defense was, essentially, that he didn’t know how brutal the abuse was. But did the commissioner of a league that makes its money off of grown men beating each other senseless need a video to know what it looks like for one of its men to beat a woman senseless? The media investigation of Goodell slowed and then ended, mired in endless speculation as to whether he had or hadn’t seen the video, whether his two-game suspension was driven by ineptitude or malice. Plus, the NFL season had just commenced, and it was back to business as usual for sports journalists.

Surveying the media reactions from past weeks, I was struck by how this focus on Goodell’s motives forged a chasm between Rice and domestic violence. Yahoo Sports writer Charles Robinson listed the five “most pressing” issues in the Rice case; in order: who saw the video, the source legitimacy of the video, the legality of the NFL seeking the video, description of events before the video leaked, and the changing suspension. Robinson’s list embodies the approaches of most journalists—they analyzed the violence within the NFL ecosystem, not within the larger context of domestic violence. For them, Rice simply exposed an internal problem—namely, a failure to adequately punish—and nothing more.

The gulf was most evident in Andrew Sharpe’s reaction on Grantland: “It’s not Goodell’s responsibility to solve domestic violence in society. It’s not the NFL’s job, either. People who say we should be more outraged at the courts are right. But that’s also an easy way to let Goodell and the league off the hook. The problems in the real world are bad enough, but if we can’t even get things right in this alternate universe full of fake laws and uniform policies and codes of conduct, that just makes everything seem twice as hopeless. Sports are supposed to be an escape, not a reminder of everything that’s unfair and hypocritical everywhere else.”

Within Sharpe’s formulation, sports stand next to society at-large, and if there is interaction between the two, it’s one directional. Namely, problems that originate in society are naturally reflected in sports. And sports, not being the problem’s creators, have the opportunity to briefly transcend them by “getting things right” within their “alternate universe.” At worst, sports reflect the status quo; at best, they’re models for change. This construction, though, lets sports “off the hook,” obscuring the dynamic interplay between sports and “everywhere else.” Like most of his colleagues, Sharpe refuses to confront the possibility that the NFL isn’t just part of a possible solution—it’s part of the problem itself.

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “Domestic violence is the willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control.” How might football—a sport in which physical intimidation and violence is showcased, in which the most vicious intimidators and attackers are glorified, in which gameplay is described using rhetoric of warfare—construct a conception of masculinity that is linked to physical power? How might football—a sport in which the only women on the field are scantily clad cheerleaders who dance provocatively when their team successfully conquers the opposition—connect violence and sexuality? How might football—a sport in which abuse by coaches is often defended as motivation—reproduce dominance elsewhere? The relationship isn’t causal. Ray Rice and others don’t abuse women because of football—but they are part of a masculine culture that has produced and legitimated an unfathomable level of domestic violence, and this culture has both informed and been informed by football.

In a New York Times op-ed titled “Sports, the Most Progressive Force in America,” Timothy Egan writes, “There is more progress on the hardwood courts, between the chalk lines and on the base paths of our games than in the halls of power.” Jackie Robinson forced a mostly white audience to confront its bigotries; Muhammad Ali inspired “a conversation about pride and prejudice that went far beyond the boxing ring”; Richard Sherman’s denunciation of the word “thug” provoked a wider dialogue about semantics and race in the media. In each of Egan’s examples, he demonstrates that sports are progressive only inasmuch as the progress reverberates elsewhere, only inasmuch the game can transcend itself. Goodell is only our primary focus if we understand sports to be detatched from the world at-large, if we approach Rice within the confines of the NFL, if we understand violence on the football field to be completely unrelated to domestic violence off of it. The media’s fixation on the suspension presents a diagnosis of the problem that is woefully incomplete, for it implies that progress lies simply in better disciplining future cases of domestic violence.

Speaking at a Ferguson teach-in at Brown University, Anthony Bogues said, “Flashpoints illuminate things that officially and typically are opaque or hidden.” The response to the Rice video felt like a flashpoint for football—rarely is there this much outrage at a professional sports league. But what was illuminated for most people was simply the incompetence of League management, not that football is part of a masculine culture that has produced appalling levels of domestic violence. Football does not exist in an alternate universe and it cannot retreat behind ‘it’s not our problem.’ That Rice was initially suspended for two games shouldn’t be our main concern. That Rice abused his fiancée should. Our demand for the NFL shouldn’t be to more justly punish after the fact, but to become invested in preventing abuse in the first place.