The Ray Rice rehabilitation tour has begun, kicked off last week by the arbitrator who ruled that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was not entirely honest in his account of why he suspended Rice indefinitely for knocking his future wife unconscious in an elevator after initially suspending him for only two games.
The former Baltimore Ravens running back, ruled former federal judge Barbara Jones, was unfairly punished twice for the same offense. Jones didn’t buy Goodell’s argument that the facts of the case changed after he saw a graphic video of Rice punching his then-fiancee. She ruled that Goodell had known all along what Rice had done and had abused his discretion by imposing a second, more severe consequence.
So Goodell botched his job. That much is clear. NFL team owners will have to decide whether they remain confident in his ability to lead a league that has just suffered a major, self-inflicted PR disaster.
Rice is now free to play professional football again. Whether any team will have him remains to be seen. Restoring the luster to his tarnished image is the first step toward that goal.
Unfortunately, the face of Rice’s rehab effort is his wife, Janay, who is both his victim and self-described “protector.”
Janay Rice has submitted to two lengthy media interviews, both of which appear calculated to wash away the stench of domestic violence that now clings to her husband’s once-pristine image. She’s only making things worse.
In early November, she spoke for three hours with ESPN’s Jemele Hill, who condensed the interview into a long, first-person piece in Rice’s voice that was posted last week. This week, she is the subject of a two-part interview with Matt Lauer on NBC’s “Today.”
Her husband was present for neither interview, though he walked in at the end of the “Today” interview and will be briefly featured in Tuesday’s segment. Keeping him away must have been a calculated decision.
After all, the last time the Rices spoke in public was at their May news conference, which was organized by the Ravens to address the ballooning abuse scandal and widely judged to be a disaster. Ray Rice apologized to the Ravens and his fans (but not his wife). Janay Rice apologized for her part in the elevator fight. Wasting no time to exonerate their star running back, the Ravens tweeted her apology (“Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident”), then took down the tweet in the face of public outrage. On Monday, Janay Rice revealed to Lauer that the Ravens had scripted the apology for her.
Mainly, she wants us to know that she has forgiven her husband for his terrible transgression, and so, now, should the rest of us.
She told ESPN that Ray Rice’s fatherless childhood has made it difficult for him to appreciate the normal give-and-take of marriage. He has trouble processing frustration and often needs time to himself to sort out personal conflict. Before they married, the couple were in counseling to work through these issues. None of which excuses what happened in the elevator, but she is trying to humanize a guy who has become the public face of the NFL’s domestic violence problem.
Ray Rice’s future boils down to two things: whether any football team is willing to take on a guy who is guaranteed to bring unwelcome scrutiny, and whether Janay Rice is persuasive that the assault was a singular event in their relationship.
On the first point, no one seems to know. ESPN’s Howard Bryant told NPR’s Scott Simon on Saturday that it all depends on how the league sees itself.
“Is it a league of second chances?” Bryant asked. “It gave Michael Vick a second chance…. If you look at the NFL's domestic violence policies, there’ve been 56, 55 previous cases where the players have gone unpunished. So in those general manager’s offices across the league, are they saying no, this player is toxic for that video and for what he actually did? Or are they saying we're in a business of success and results and here’s a guy who can help us and will allow ourselves the narrative of a second chance?”
On the second point, as I've written before, I doubt that this was Rice’s first brush with domestic abuse, and so do many experts. It’s hard to imagine someone popping his wife in the head so casually and violently out of the blue, even if, as Janay Rice told ESPN, both of them were very drunk that night. (She also told ESPN that Ray spit on her after she tried to grab his phone. What kind of person spits on his wife?)
On Monday, Lauer asked her about Rice’s callous behavior after he knocked her out.
“You are unconscious, you are out cold on the floor,” Lauer said. “He stands there for a long time. What did you think when you saw that part of the tape?”
Janay Rice replied: “I asked him, ‘Why did you just leave me there like that?’ He said he was terrified. He was in such shock that this had just happened, he didn’t know how to function at that point.”
She does not say what, exactly, terrified him. Was he worried he’d killed his fiance? Or was he in fear of bad publicity?
What’s even more worrisome is her capacity for denial and minimization, two common hallmarks of unresolved abusive relationships. She tells Lauer that she does not consider herself a victim of domestic violence (she says that her eyes have been opened to the true suffering of abuse victims, but that she does not identify with them).
And she rationalizes her husband’s behavior in a manner that should send a shiver down your spine.
“Everybody makes mistakes,” she said. “After this whole situation, you would think we lived in a country full of people who never made a mistake, who never sinned in their life.”
These are not the words of someone who understands the enormity of what her “role model” husband has done. If she had landed just so against the elevator rail, she might not even be alive to defend him today. She should keep that in mind as she tries to salvage her husband’s career.
Please follow me on Twitter: @robinabcarian