Opinion: The uncomfortable conversations sparked by the Ray Rice ‘nightmare’

Ray Rice
Ray Rice was let go by the Baltimore Ravens on Monday and suspended indefinitely by the NFL.
(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

The video showing Ray Rice punching his then-fiancée Janay Palmer, knocking her out cold and then dragging her out of an elevator, has sparked several heated, and frankly, much-needed conversations about domestic abuse, the NFL’s responsibility and re-victimization. Even President Obama has weighed in. Here are thoughts circling around the Opinion pages:

What did Obama mean by ‘real man’?

Among those decrying the violence captured in the video of ex-Baltimore Raven Ray Rice and his then-fiancée was Obama. But what the president said is causing some controversy.

Here is his statement, conveyed by White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest:


“The president is the father of two daughters, and like any American, he believes that domestic violence is contemptible and unacceptable in a civilized society. Hitting a woman is not something a real man does, and that’s true whether or not an act of violence happens in the public eye or, far too often, behind closed doors. Stopping domestic violence is something that’s bigger than football, and all of us have a responsibility to put a stop to it.”

That may seem unexceptionable, but two words jumped out of the message: “real man.” One journalist tweeted: “What I think America needs is more men declaring what ‘real men’ do. Because that has ALWAYS worked out well.”

“Real men” — a phrase that for Americans of a certain age will always be followed by “don’t eat quiche” — seems to endorse, even as it civilizes it, the stereotype of a manly man.

Obama’s comment reminded me of a piece by the conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat in which Douthat celebrated a form of “masculine strength and self-possession” that also included respect for women. As examples he offered Hollywood legends Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy, “icons whose characters often dealt with female stars as equals, who had sex appeal to burn but weren’t defined by their libidos or their list of conquests, who dealt in violence sparingly or not at all.”


Obama seemed to have the same strong but soft-spoken “manly man” in mind, and he clearly was playing on the image of professional football players as “real men.” (In a fascinating essay on the Grantland website, Brian Phillips refers to the NFL’s “curious, quasi-self-appointed role as the safe zone of troubled American masculinity.”)

Whatever Obama meant by the phrase “real man,” he was implying that there is something beyond anatomical differences that defines men and not women. In some circles, this is called “gendered discourse.” And this wasn’t the first time Obama had engaged in it.

In February, he announced the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, which is designed to deal with a group Obama said was uniquely challenged by  stagnant wages, economic insecurity and stalled mobility — “boys and young men of color.” The initiative itself has come in for criticism that it neglected “at risk” women and girls of color. But Obama’s remarks at the unveiling also flirted with what some theorists call “gender essentialism.”

Obama was introduced at the event by a young man named Christian. Obama explained: “I first met Christian about a year ago. I visited the Hyde Park Academy in Chicago, which is only about a mile from my house. And Christian was part of this program called ‘Becoming a Man.’ It’s a program that Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced to me. And it helps young men who show a lot of potential but may have gotten in some trouble to stay on the right path.”

The program that turned Christian’s life around wasn’t called “Becoming a Person.” Gender-specificity is common in various efforts in schools and elsewhere to help at-risk kids. And it’s more than a response to the demographic fact that males — of all races — are more prone to violence and antisocial behavior than females. Such efforts often are designed to cater to “male learning styles.”

I’m not saying Obama supports some narrow, macho notion of masculinity. He’s obviously a feminist and has “evolved” to support gay marriage. But he clearly thinks “manliness” is a meaningful term, which probably shouldn’t be a surprise coming from the author of “Dreams From My Father.”

Michael McGough, Times editorial board member

What the NFL should have known


It was bad enough for the National Football League and the Baltimore Ravens when the Raven’s star running back, Ray Rice, knocked out then-fiancée Janay Palmer in an Atlantic City casino elevator and then dragged her out like a side of beef. But the league and the team appear to have made matters worse for themselves by ignoring one of the lessons of 21st century journalism: Nothing caught on a private video stays private.

The outrage Rice provoked in February when reports of the incident first came to light pales in comparison to the outrage that erupted this week when TMZ released a surveillance video from inside the Revel Casino elevator showing the knockout punch. But the public couldn’t get much more angry at Rice, who’d already acknowledged what he’d done. Instead, the venom focused on the NFL for belatedly ramping up the initial penalty it imposed on Rice, which had been just a two-game suspension.

What’s proving to be most galling is the insistence by officials at the league and the Ravens that they hadn’t seen the video from inside the elevator before Monday. As Deadspin clearly documented, league and team officials were telling reporters at the time of the initial penalty that they had seen the video — in fact, they’d seen everything gathered in the police’s felony investigation. (Rice was charged with aggravated assault but was accepted into a pretrial diversion program.) One official went so far as to say that this video, which showed Palmer (now Rice’s wife) taking a swing at Rice before he landed his devastating punch, helped explain why the league’s penalty was relatively light.

It’s certainly possible, although not easily believable, that the reporters’ sources lied to them about seeing what the video captured inside the elevator. If they weren’t, they had incredibly bad judgment about either of two things. First, they must have thought it’s not such a big deal when a professional football player cold-cocks a woman approximately half his size, then stands by passively as if nothing had happened. I don’t know how you can watch the video and have that reaction, however. So that leaves the other possibility: They must have assumed the video would never become public. And considering that TMZ had already obtained one inflammatory bit of surveillance footage from the scene (showing Rice schlepping an unconscious Palmer out of the elevator), it’s amazing anyone would think the more sensational video wouldn’t come to light eventually.

If officials at the league and the Ravens did see the taped punch before imposing the first penalty on Rice, they had no good options when TMZ released it Monday. But lying about it seems like the worst of the bad options.

Jon Healey, Times editorial board member

Sizing up the NFL’s role in the Ray Rice incident is complicated

What the now-disgraced (and fired) Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice did to his then-fiancée in an Atlantic City Hotel is despicable. Newly released video shows that he punched her, rendering her unconscious. I doubt that anyone disagrees that he should have lost his job and been indefinitely suspended from the National Football League after this.


But sizing up the NFL’s role in all this is more complicated. Initially NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice in July for two games — based on what the NFL appeared to know. The league, like the rest of us, had seen a tape of Rice dragging his then-fiancée out of the elevator in February. Yes, of course, short of this being a situation where she had a heart attack and collapsed, it looks awfully suspicious when a man is dragging an unconscious woman out of an elevator. It was bad enough that the courts charged him with felony assault in March — but Janay Palmer, who had become his wife by then, declined to testify (which is incredibly sad and troubling), so the charges were dropped. Although the court still ordered counseling for Rice. At that point, Goddell should have perhaps suspended him for the period of his counseling and a certain length of time beyond that. In fact, Goodell did apologize for the light suspension and instituted new rules saying that players would be suspended for six games when they are found to have committed domestic violence. Of course, the NFL could hardly look to the court for guidance since the court dropped the charges.

If that were all there was to it, this would just be a sad, troubling case. But the bigger issue now is whether NFL officials had, in fact, already seen the tape of the violent incident inside the elevator months ago. Whether prosecutors felt they could pursue a case is one thing. If NFL officials saw what Rice did, then they should have indefinitely suspended him at that point from the league. (That seems to be about the worst punishment the NFL thrusts on anyone. Michael Vick was indefinitely suspended from the NFL right before going to prison on dogfighting charges. He got out and rejuvenated his football career.)

Carla Hall, Times editorial board member

But wait, isn’t the NFL supposed to care about concussions?

Regulations require NFL players who get hit on the head, [which can result] in possible concussions, to leave the field for the locker room accompanied by medical personnel. [They] are subjected to physical and cognitive evaluation and kept off the field until they are deemed to be out of danger.

If you’re a helpless woman who gets cold-cocked by an NFL player in a casino elevator, is knocked unconscious and strike your head on a metal handrail while falling to the floor, it’s quite another story.

You’re dragged out of the elevator and dumped face down on the lobby floor, where you are ignored by the NFL and left to your own devices to deal with your injuries and your attacker.

David Medrano, Times reader in a letter to the editor

Janay Rice’s lamentable response

When the story of Ray Rice’s attack on his then-fiancée Janay Palmer emerged, it was quickly swept under the rug after all, who wants to shatter the image of their sporting hero and replace it with that of the woman-beating monster in a grainy elevator video? Nobody, it seemed especially not the NFL, which thought a two-game suspension was sufficient punishment for knocking a person unconscious and dragging them along the ground. Given the organization’s pathetic history with bringing violent players to task, its failure to institute any real kind of penance came as little surprise.

What did come as a surprise, though, was how Palmer has dealt with the incident. She has described Monday’s video leak as “a horrible nightmare,” one that forces her to “relive a moment … that we regret every day.” So far, so understandable. But she goes on: “If your intentions were to hurt us, embarrass us, make us feel alone, take all happiness away, you’ve succeeded on so many levels.

“To take something away from the man I love … is horrific,” she says.

I’m sorry, Janay, but you’re wrong. What you’ve suffered is truly awful, and nobody thinks you should be some kind of paragon of abuse survival, but excusing your husband’s actions and apologizing for “the role you played” in the incident (as a now-deleted Ravens tweet alleged) is beyond a misdirection of blame.

Because Ray Rice’s punishment isn’t horrific. It’s a tiny, infinitesimal price to pay for thinking abuse is acceptable, and that fame and fortune puts you above the law.

It doesn’t.

Charlotte Lytton, guest blogger

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