The National Football League made one thing shockingly clear with its feeble suspension of Ray Rice: Domestic violence is precisely half as important as substance abuse. The vast majority of players caught using performance-enhancing drugs and illegal recreational substances — including marijuana, which is being decriminalized around the country — are suspended for four games under league policies. But Rice, a longtime star running back for the 2013 Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, received only a two-game suspension after being seen on videotape dragging his unconscious then-fiancee out of an Atlantic City casino hotel elevator after an alleged fight in February. The NFL has a lot of image problems these days, and trivializing domestic violence gives it another.
As if to confirm that Rice’s suspension was a slap on the wrist, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said in a Washington Post story, “It’s not a big deal . . . I stand behind Ray. He’s a heck of a guy.” The NFL sank deeper into moral quicksand Monday when the league’s senior vice president of labor policy, Adolpho Birch, claimed on ESPN radio that Rice’s loss of more than $500,000 in salary (from an average annual income of $7 million) is evidence enough that the league does not condone the behavior. “I think we can put that to rest,” Birch said.
Not really. Rice avoided jail time by entering a pretrial intervention program, and his fiancee still married him. But the legal maneuvering by Rice — and the complicated and conflicted decisions of women in abusive situations — should not have tempered the message the league sends its athletes. The NFL sent a better message when it suspended star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2010 for six games for alleged sexual assault, even though he was not charged. When Commissioner Roger Goodell disciplined Roethlisberger, he said, “We’re trying to affect behavior here . . . You don’t have to be convicted of a crime. We’re trying to have early intervention so we can avoid people having criminal activity and deal with issues so they can get them straightened out.”
The NFL is quick to say its modern fan base is nearly half women, and it prides itself on games held during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, in which players wear pink shoes. But when athletes take off the gloves against wives and girlfriends, the league’s best demonstration of support for women is a roundhouse suspension of offending athletes. Roethlisberger responded to his suspension by going on such good behavior that Goodell reduced it to four games. That’s the minimum Goodell should have considered for Rice.