Here are a few basic premises and/or facts:
1. Ray Rice hit his then girlfriend now wife in February (they subsequently married amidst this scandal)..
2. Ray Rice hit his wife very hard.
3. Ray Rice hit his wife very hard and initially we saw a video of Rice dragging his wife out of an elevator at the Revel Casino in Atlantic City.
4. Ray Rice was arrested, pleaded guilty, and went into a first offenders' program.
5. Upon its initial review, the NFL (i.e., Commissioner Roger Goodell) suspended Rice for two games.
6. After a public hue and cry (which Goodell's remarks at the NFL Hall of Fame exacerbated), the NFL adopted a policy that would require a six-game suspension for first-time offenders of its domestic abuse policy (this at around the same time that the players' union and the league were negotiating testing for HGH).
7. Video footage comes out of Rice's punch of his now wife surfaces -- it's pretty graphic. Questions abound whether the NFL saw the video during its investigation and before levying punishment of Rice. Almost every pundit is wondering aloud whether Roger Goodell lied about seeing the video or whether he should resign because the video came out and apparently the NFL didn't get it from the Revel or the NFL got it but either it wasn't brought to Goodell's attention or someone described it to Goodell, who opted not to see it. What is unclear is how Rice characterized what happened in the elevator during the time before he dragged his wife out of it.
People are frustrated and angry and upset, and for a whole host of reasons. But isn't this just the tip of the iceberg of an over-glorified culture where kids who have talent are catered to from a young age and, as a result, can have a skewed sense of right and wrong. Major colleges prostitute themselves to get them to sign a letter of intent, and sometimes provide girls to help them make their decision. Schools do all sorts of things to keep players' eligible and sometimes pass them along in majors that are guaranteed only to keep them eligible as opposed to give them life skills. They encourage kids to play hurt or have created a culture whereby if a kid were to take himself out of a game, he might lose his spot and perhaps, ultimately, his scholarship. Schools have had boosters pay high school coaches a bounty if a key player chooses one school over another. Players have used PEDs. Players have used marijuana, have substance abuse problems and possibly all sorts of problems. 75% of NFL players end up broke, divorced or depressed within a short number of years after they are done playing. They (barely) pay scantily clad women to dance suggestively at midfield and on the sidelines. There are very few women executives, scouts, coaches or broadcasters, and the broadcasters tend to be model-like, well spoken women who report from the sidelines. Do I need to add any more?
So, if you're outraged at Ray Rice and don't think he should play again, then let's ask a few other questions about culture:
1. Do you still watch baseball, even though a) so many players were juicing they looked like linebackers, b) the records were totally skewed and c) baseball turned a blind eye while it all was going on (retrospectively, the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa quest to break Roger Maris's home run record was a joke)?
2. Do you think that Penn State a) should be playing football now and b) should have had their sanctions lifted? Let's not forget what Jerry Sandusky did or how badly Penn State handled its football culture, including letting Joe Paterno becoming bigger than the school (and institutions of higher learning should have a higher calling than adopting idolatry as one of their central reasons for existing)?
3. Does it trouble you that when polled, more players would have wanted Richie Incognito on their team than Jonathan Martin? Did it bother you that when that problem was investigated, it seemed like NFL locker rooms had a "prison yard" mentality (according to a great column by ESPN's Jason Whitlock) where you really needed someone to "have your back." Did it bother you that Martin was picked on because he came from a very well-educated, accomplished family?
4. Do you watch Floyd Mayweather fight (given his history of abusing women)?
5. Many professional athletes have many children by different women (it is not a majority, but sadly the examples are egregious). Do you root for their teams?
6. If you were a Packers' fan, do you have any qualms now about having rooted for Darren Sharper given all of the allegations against him regarding sexual misconduct?
7. How do you feel about how many former players -- at any level -- are suffering in later life from all sorts of awful brain, spine and orthopedic injuries, to the point that there have been class-action lawsuits and awful tales about suicides and early deaths? Is this something that we can accept out of what's now our national pastime? And, if so, why? The President has said that if he had boys he wouldn't want them to play football, and Ed Reed was quoted as saying that he told his kids that he played so that they wouldn't have to, something that boxers were wont to say fifty years ago. And, most recently, John Madden offered a similar view to that of the President.
8. Would you want your daughter to date a scholarship athlete at a major college, given how entitled they are, how much they are catered to, and how many people are there to help get them through and, at times, avoid accountability anywhere but the football field?
9. Do you think that there is something wrong with our culture if you hope that a brush with the law or major personal transgression will not interfere with an athlete on your favorite team's ability to play in the upcoming game?
I have written many times that everyone is entitled to a defense and that we shouldn't jump to conclusions. I'm very open to all sides of an argument and enjoy the discussion very much. As for the Ray Rice situation, the young man needs help. So does his now-wife, who needs more and probably should get away from him, far away. So does his father-in-law, to whom Rice looked as a mentor. He should look out more for his daughter's well being than Rice's, as the next punch his daughter takes could be her last. Otherwise, it would same that Janay Palmer is destined for a similar fate to that of Nicole Brown.
The Ravens' culture needs some re-assessing, too. They so mishandled this situation that they should hire outside human resources and employment law experts to put in a Code of Conduct that makes sense. Had it been someone on the accounting team who had belted his wife, been arrested and gotten publicity, my guess is that they would have fired him or put him on administrative leave. Why should the on-field talent be treated any different? They also should think very hard about how they addressed this situation from a public relations standpoint, such as having Janay Palmer go out there and apologize for provoking the incident, not having the owner out there and sending John Harbaugh out there after the video of Rice's striking Palmer became public. Theirs is a "how not to film" as to how to handle this type of situation.
The NFL's culture needs some re-assessing, too, from how they treat all sorts of problematic situations, to who investigates to how they handle the media to giving the commissioner some help in the form of a structured panel of owners/advisors to help deal with these issues. Much of this already might exist, but given that football has become the national pastime (for better or for worse), they fumbled this situation fairly badly. Both the Ravens and the NFL could have turned it into an opportunity -- about character, about conduct and about honor.
The radio pundits also should be more measured in how they approach problems like these. First, the likes of Ron Jaworski should refrain from saying, in essence, that they would have taken matters into their own hands if someone hit one of his daughters. That's a rash, emotional reaction but not one that one would expect from someone as measured and affable as Jaworski. I hope that he had the same sense of outrage regarding other abuse scandals of recent memory (such as Penn State and the Roman Catholic Church, among others, as well as the Michael Vick situation, whether he served his time in Leavenworth or not). Second, Jaworski should refrain from speculating that money changed hands in this situation. Unless he has any proof, that's probably not a good place to go. By the way, I think that Jaworski is one of the best guys out there.
So what bothers us about the NFL's handling of the Ray Rice situation beyond that it was sloppy and not straightforward? Is it just that -- or a realization that many people's favorite game has so many warts that the league airbrushes -- warts that are not benign and in all likelihood could be toxic? And if that's the case, then are we bothered because many of us will keep on coming back and are addicted to it, warts and all, toxic or not? Put differently, how much are we willing to isolate and overlook to keep coming back to our pastimes and hobbies? If your favorite team has a racist, a few bigots, one or two who abuse animals, a few deadbeat dads, a tax cheat or two, guys who don't pay their bills, guys who attend strip clubs, bad tippers -- do you like them because they are bad boys and rascals or do you walk away? Would you want your daughter to date those guys? Would you want your son to become like them?
Some former players have talked about Goodell's obligation to "protect the shield," the NFL logo. But isn't that the obligation of everyone who works for the NFL or a team? My experience has taught me that everyone has to own their own integrity and their own compliance -- and that if you wait for the commissioners of the world to come in, it's too late, and your culture is at best in disarray and at worst, rotten.
This is a bad situation. If high-minded people are to turn it into an opportunity, then they have to look hard in the mirror and try to solve for quote from one of the league's all-time coaches, Bill Parcells, who once said, "You are what your record says you are."
And on many character issues, at many different levels -- from high school to college to the NFL -- that record of what we accept and what we tolerate is just not every good.