On Monday, the NFL trotted out Adolpho Birch, senior vice president for labor policy, to defend the league’s two-game suspension of Ravens running back Ray Rice for assaulting his fiancee in an Atlantic City casino last February.
I had three immediate reactions: One, who the hell is Adolpho Birch? Two, Rice got only two games? And three, why isn’t Roger Goodell, the tough guy commissioner, the one explaining this decision to the public?
As of Tuesday, we still hadn’t heard from Goodell, who has earned the nickname of “The Enforcer” for some of his harsh, unequivocal punishments against miscreant NFL players during his nine years as commish.
But this time, The Enforcer came across as The Enabler. Goodell, who has been tough on drugs and taken a strong, if belated, stand on head injuries, missed a chance to make a powerful statement on assault against women.
Rice was allegedly caught by elevator surveillance camera punching his girlfriend, Janay Palmer, in the face. Minutes later, Rice was seen dragging Palmer’s body from the floor of the elevator on a video that went viral.
The couple has since married. Rice was not convicted of any crime. Palmer met with the NFL and asked for leniency for her husband. Birch said suspending Rice for two regular-season games sent a message “about what the league stands for.”
Sorry, it’s not enough. It makes Goodell look weak and inconsistent. The message I’m hearing is that smoking pot, selling team memorabilia while in college and eating an unapproved protein bar are worse than beating up a woman.
Goodell has issued longer suspensions for all those offenses. He also gave six games (later reduced to four) to Ben Roethlisberger in 2010, after Big Ben was charged with sexual assault twice in nine months.
Roethlisberger wasn’t convicted. But Goodell has power to discipline players for dubious conduct before cases are resolved in court, regardless of the outcome. In Roethlisberger’s case, he left no doubt that the NFL considered sexual assault a huge issue.
He should have done the same with Rice. Granted, it wasn’t a sexual attack. But the videos were stark and disturbing. When the elevator doors opened, it was a symbolic reminder that we can never know what goes on behind closed doors.
It shouldn’t matter that Palmer married Rice and asked for leniency. Women marry abusive men all the time. They stay in abusive relationships out of fear. When the police show up at the door, they often explain away the bruises and tell the cops it’s no big deal.
Palmer told the NFL that Rice had never assaulted her before. Maybe that’s true. But this goes beyond a single incident. The scene outside the elevator was a lurid reminder that the NFL has had a problem with assaults against women.
Greg Hardy, the Panthers’ Pro Bowl defensive end, was recently convicted of assaulting an ex-girlfriend by a North Carolina judge. The league hasn’t ruled in Hardy’s case.
Cardinals linebacker Daryl Washington got a year’s probation for shoving the mother of his child and breaking her collarbone. Washington was suspended for the 2014 season – for a second violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
Go back through the years and you’ll find countless other cases. The most heinous crime by an NFL player was against a woman: Rae Carruth ordering the execution-style killing of a woman who was pregnant with his child.
Violence against women is an epidemic in America. President Obama formed a task force to deal with campus rape. According to a study by the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, one-third of all campus rapes are committed by athletes. Major college football has its share.
This past Monday, three of the top seven stories on ESPN.com’s college football page involved assaults on women:
Charlie Strong, the new Texas coach, has kicked six players off the team after charges of sexual assault; Devonte Fields, TCU’s star defensive end, was suspended after allegedly punching an ex-girlfriend and threatening her with a gun; Deon Humphrey, a former Florida State linebacker, was charged with “domestic battery by strangulation” against his girlfriend.
So when the big-money NCAA schools abide this sort of behavior, is it any surprise if the problem carries over to the NFL? From the moment they exhibit rare physical talent, athletes gain an enormous sense of entitlement. Females are seen as perks along the way, subservient to the football enterprise – like underpaid NFL cheerleaders.
Violence against women is a big problem for the NFL, maybe even bigger than concussions. At least the players are hurting each other on the playing field. As the cliche goes, they “know what they signed up for” when they decided to play a violent game.
No woman signs up to be knocked out on an elevator, or shaken by the neck until her ears bleed.
That’s the underlying message when Goodell goes soft on Rice. Maybe the woman was somehow complicit in the assault. Maybe she brought it on herself. Palmer later apologized at a news conference – and got no apology from Rice.
It’s common in assaults against women. Blame the victim. It’s no wonder that such a high percentage of rapes go unreported. Why go through the harrowing ordeal of trying to prove it happened?
Remember the rape charge last year against Jameis Winston, the star quarterback for national champion Florida State? The case went nowhere, and the alleged victim was dismissed as some overzealous party girl.
But a recent New York Times investigation determined that the college and the police did basically nothing to pursue the case. They failed to follow solid leads and waited almost a year to interview a key witness. The lead investigator had done private work for the Seminole Boosters.
Oh, and let’s not forget Lizzy Seeberg, who accused a Notre Dame football player of sexual assault and was told that messing with Irish football was a bad idea.
Seeberg committed suicide in 2010.
The stories pile up, which is why many women expressed their outrage on social media after Goodell gave Rice two games. Women, who make up an estimated 40 percent of the NFL fan base, deserved more. Goodell should keep that in mind.
Oh, the league will put on a nice show this weekend in Canton. It will be a fine time, a celebration of the league and its players. The Rice case will be forgotten – until the next time a woman takes one in the kisser.