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Does the NFL have a women problem?

Roger Goodell at Super Bowl XLVII. (Charlie Riedel / AP)

The NFL sent a message with its latest disciplinary move, suspending Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice because of a domestic incident that it deems to be a violation of its personal conduct policy. Unfortunately, the recipients of Commissioner Roger Goodell’s message are women.

Rice was suspended the first two games of the season after a February incident in which he allegedly knocked his then-fiancée unconscious in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino. The incident was captured on disturbing video and Rice entered a not-guilty plea to a third-degree charge of aggravated assault. He avoided trial by being accepted into a pretrial intervention program in May. The following month, he met with Goodell, who can use the league’s personal-conduct policy to suspend players even if they are not charged or convicted of a crime.

The suspension sparked an instant and heated debate over how the league dishes out punishment, given that drug violations typically draw longer suspensions.  It particularly resonated poorly with women, sending the wrong message just as NFL viewership among them is at a high and when the league is, once again, openly courting the audience of women and their financial clout. At a time when some women employed as cheerleaders are suing teams in several cities over low wages, the suspension especially strikes another oddly off-key note for a league that has always been better at PR than this.

In fact, the NFL would do well to remember that women haven’t always flocked to its games. There was a time when the league had to do damage control, especially after Rae Carruth of the Carolina Panthers was sent to prison for his role in the shooting death of his then-pregnant girlfriend in 1999. The league embarked on an image makeover, doing things like having players hand out roses to women at breast cancer walks. Now, in addition to clothing specifically designed for and marketed to women (yes, there’s a Ray Rice women’s jersey), there’s a league-wide initiative to raise breast cancer awareness every October. Yet recent incidents involving Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, Arizona Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington and Rice are troubling.

They’re also dangerous, with Scarborough Research finding that women represent approximately 45 percent of the NFL’s fans and almost 33 percent of the its viewing audience, based on Nielsen data reported by Sports Business Daily last fall. Women, Ann Bastianelli of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business told ESPNW, make 70 percent of “important family decisions.”

The NFL might have thought that its punishment would not be controversial, despite that shocking casino video of the Rice incident, and it handled it rather nonchalantly, as did Ravens Coach John Harbaugh initially at training camp Thursday. “It’s not a big deal, it’s just part of the process. … there are consequences when you make a mistake like that,” Harbaugh said. “I stand behind Ray. He’s a heck of a guy. He’s done everything right since. He makes a mistake, all right? He’s going to have to pay a consequence. I think that’s good for kids to understand it works that way. That’s how it works, that’s how it should be.”

Rice released a statement in which he said, “It is disappointing that I will not be with my teammates for the first two games of the season, but that’s my fault. I failed in many ways. But Janay and I have learned from this. We have become better as a couple and as parents. I am better because of everything we have experienced since that night. The counseling has helped tremendously. My goal is to earn back the trust of the people, especially the children I let down because of this incident. I am a role model and I take that responsibility seriously. My actions going forward will show that.”

But Mark Schlereth, a former player and now an ESPN commentator, agreed with those who felt the punishment was insufficient. “I didn’t think it was long enough. I didn’t think it was stiff enough. … Suspensions for drugs and PEDs [performance-enhancing drugs] were longer. We’ve seen on-the-field conduct [suspensions] be longer than that. We’re seeing guys getting fined for helmet-to-helmets hits that were unavoidable and suspensions … I just thought the NFL did not come out and really take a a firm stance. They should have on this particular instance.”

In announcing the suspension, the NFL cited the absence of any legal punishment, pointed out that Goodell met with Rice and his wife and released Goodell’s letter to Rice:

“As you acknowledged during our meeting, your conduct was unquestionably inconsistent with league polices and the standard of behavior required of everyone who is part of the NFL. The league is an entity that depends on integrity and in the confidence of the public and we simply cannot tolerate conduct that endangers others or reflects negatively on our game. This is particularly true with respect to domestic violence and other forms of violence against women.
“You will be expected to continue to take advantage of the counseling and other professional services you identified during our meeting. As you noted, this additional assistance has been of significant benefit to you and your wife, and it should remain a part of your practice as appropriate.
“I believe that you are sincere in your desire to learn from this matter and move forward toward a healthy relationship and successful career. I am now focused on your actions and expect you to demonstrate by those actions that you are prepared to fulfill those expectations.”

Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, said in an email: “Just consider the extraordinary resources provided to Mr. Rice to shield him from accountability for his violent assault: lawyers, mentors, coaches, PR people, and of course the NFL brass who gave him a two-game suspension. Where are the resources for Janay Palmer? What resources does the NFL provide for the wives, fiancees and girlfriends abused or assaulted by NFL players?”

If only it were as simple as the NFL seems to think. It has work to do and it’s going to take more than pink cleats in October to fix this.