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Making an example of Ray Rice isn’t enough

In this May 23, 2014, file photo, Janay Rice, left, looks on as her husband, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, speaks to the media during a news conference in Owings Mills, Md.  (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
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The Ravens have been part of the Baltimore community for 19 years. In that time, their on-the-gridiron pursuits have brought the city glory, and their off-the-field fouls have caused us some shame. But like all football cities, we are loyal. Championship flags fly from our cars, our supermarkets sell baked goods emblazoned with Ravens regalia, and on Fridays, during football season, much of the city is submerged in a purple haze as fans don the color itself or break out their team jerseys before heading to the office. Many Baltimoreans cannot talk about the Ravens without using the first-person plural. Even I, a woman who rarely watches football or doesn’t own any team paraphernalia, find myself slipping into the language of “us” and “we” when referring to the franchise.

Indeed, the Ravens brand and its players are our pride. They are also, uniquely, our problem.

In light of now former running back Ray Rice’s ongoing domestic violence case and its fallout, fans have been placed in the difficult position of negotiating what it means to continue rooting for a team that was willing to blame Janay Rice (his then-fiancee, now wife) for his assault, to support a league that issued an insulting two-game suspension to Ray for knocking her unconscious, and to pretend ignorance of the full extent of his brutality, before then swinging hard to the other extreme and washing their hands of him entirely.

How can we feel satisfied and safe to return to unquestioning team support, when we know how complicit the team and league were for the seven months before a second surveillance tape surfaced? We are owed more than an abrupt firing and an expressed hope to return to “normal.” So are Ray and Janay Rice. We’re owed stronger, more specific league policies for domestic violence prevention and intervention.

The NFL Personal Code of Conduct suggests that the public should have a stake in how player misconduct is handled, since it adversely impacts us all:

Illegal or irresponsible conduct does more than simply tarnish the offender. It puts innocent people at risk, sullies the reputation of others involved in the game, and undermines public respect and support for the NFL.

Here is where the league tips its hand: the NFL is only as powerful as its fans’ respect and support for it. It must cave to public pressure in cases like Ray Rice’s, where viral video makes it impossible to ignore both the crime and the outcry against it. Failure to do so could mean organized fan protest and divestment of revenue from the franchise.

Knowing this, we should be thinking carefully about what kind of public pressure we want to advocate. In dropping Rice, the Ravens and the NFL have opted for an ostracize-and-isolate model (only after a conspire-to-minimize-and-conceal attempt didn’t work). Overnight, the league ensured that Rice would be persona non grata in the NFL, going as far as to pull his jerseys from their online store. Other retailers quickly followed suit and a local Baltimore pizza shop went as far as launching a Ray Rice jersey exchange program: free pizza and a $2.70 donation to the House of Ruth for every jersey dropped off. None of this should help us rest easier.

Making an example of someone is far different than setting an example for him.

Yesterday’s decisions came at the end of a long seven months, during which Ray and Janay have married, entered relationship counseling and, in Ray’s case, started anger management courses. The new video evidence revived an old conversation about the problem of intimate partner brutality in the NFL but did nothing to move it forward. We have no way of knowing whether any of the steps the Rices have taken since February have had any impact on Rice’s propensity toward physically assaulting women. Skepticism would be wise. But if we hold in one hand the idea of counseling and intervention programs to prevent further violence and in the other, long-term unemployment and social ostracism, we can imagine which option is more likely to result in recidivism.

In short: firing Ray Rice has done little to ensure Janay Rice’s safety and it isn’t likely to deter other NFL players who are abusing their partners. The only moral here seems to be that a team will protect its abusive players until it becomes impossible. Supporting this course in the future won’t solve the well-documented NFL domestic violence problem. What might is a system of prevention rather than punishment — at least for first-time (known) offenders.

The league should take this opportunity to implement accountability programs that work in concert with counseling professionals, team owners, coaches, fellow players, and the fans. Since viral video has changed the stakes and made it impossible to keep the community out of off-field scandals, why not find ways to involve us more? Less is known about domestic abuse prevention programs, aimed to treat and educate abusers, than about intimate partner violence protection centers for victims. The CDC’s Domestic Violence Prevention Enhancement and Leadership Alliances (DELTA) describes its treatment model as one that addresses “the complex interplay between individual, relationship, community, and societal factors, and allows [facilitators] to address risk and protective factors from multiple domains.”

DELTA programs emphasize that engagement with communities — rather than isolation from them — play a critical role in reducing instances of physical aggression:

The community level of the model examines the contexts in which social relationships are embedded-such as schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods-and seeks to identify the characteristics of these settings that are associated with victims or perpetrators of violence. 

It may be too late for Ray Rice to serve as study participant in an NFL-facilitated program patterned at DELTA’s, but the league would do well to consider making its future approaches to “example-making” more symbiotic and less singular. Fans would do well to demand it. If we don’t, the cycle of covering-up and cutting-the-caught will continue — and the focus of prevention will remain on the women who live in fear of these men, rather than on everyone who is complicit in their assault.