Personal accountability for a public person like Ray Rice becomes something we demand most urgently when video becomes available. The footage of him punching his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, in the face inside an Atlantic City casino elevator, rendering her unconscious—then later, by her feet, dragging her limp body out into the hallway—is brutal and unforgettable. Now, nearly 18 months later, he’s doing all he can to make amends both privately and publicly. By all accounts, he has improved his relationship with Janay, to whom he is now married. He has been undergoing counseling and after a typical celebrity semi-apology, has fully owned up to what he did. Theoretically, the door is now open for the former NFL running back and domestic abuser to resume his pro football career.
More and more, we hear people saying that Rice “deserves” the opportunity to do so. His former Ravens teammate Torrey Smith said as much in June, telling TMZ that Rice has “made things right with his wife and family and earned respect with his actions since the incident.” espnW reporter Jane McManus echoed that argument, writing that Rice, by all accounts, has “dedicated himself sincerely to the process.” Now, the two co-founders of the national organization A Call to Men, which aims to end violence against women, are also advocating for Rice to be given a second chance. “We have been around a lot of abusive men, but our experience with Ray has been tremendously positive,” co-founder Tony Porter told ESPN this past weekend. “We feel strongly about him having the opportunity of having a second chance. He’s deserving of it.”
There was a time I might have agreed with them. But the word “deserve” implies a merited reward. NFL teams, with their nonguaranteed player contracts and quick hooks for coaches, tend not to operate in the “deserve” paradigm. This is football we’re talking about, so we must note the player we’re talking about: A 28-year-old veteran, old for a running back, who averaged only 3.1 yards per carry and rushed for a measly 660 yards when last he played two seasons ago. Yes, he was fighting through a hip injury that is now fully healed. But as NFL training camps convene, just those facts about Rice alone would make it difficult for him to land a job on a roster. Add in his domestic abuse, and it isn’t surprising that Rice remains radioactive to the NFL owners and fan bases which would, respectively, employ him at the risk of high public scrutiny and be asked to cheer him on. Not only is it questionable whether Rice deserves another shot to be a pro running back. In fact, it isn’t about “deserve” at all.
Sandwiched between his wife, Janay, who held their young daughter, and Janay’s parents, the former Baltimore Raven listened to Today host Matt Lauer ask him in December what he thought it would take for another NFL owner and fan base to take a chance on him after the world had seen him knock his wife out. “They would have to be willing to, you know, look deeper into who I am and realize that me and my wife had one bad night, and I took full responsibility for it,” Rice replied. “And one thing about my punishment and everything going along with anything that happened is that I've accepted it. I went fully forward with it. I never complained, or I never did anything like that. I took full responsibility for everything that I did, and the only thing I can hope for and wish for is a second chance.”
Rice, who was cut by the Ravens immediately after the video’s release, would dodge the “deserve” rhetoric again a couple months later in a print interview with Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson. Rice was asked directly whether he was optimistic that he’d eventually get a second chance in the NFL—“and why do you feel like you deserve one?” If Rice feels he deserved one, he didn’t say so. He used the word “optimistic” regarding his prospects of re-joining the league, adding that if a team gets that he’ll do whatever he needs to in order to be a team player, he might get another job.
Rice himself may understand what “deserve” means and sounds like. Or, at least, he’d been fed the correct lines. Either way, he seems to get—perhaps more than the media or activists championing his “process”—that if he gets a chance to play again, it may be because a team has an extreme lack of running back depth or an emergency need, and they decide that they can afford to take whatever public relations hit they may suffer when they sign him. But it won’t be because a few respectable people believe Rice has earned enough points for his Celebrity Domestic Abuser Redemption Merit Badge.
There is a thick river of entitlement running through our sports culture. Some players act as though the unconditional personal loyalty of the cities where they play is part of their voluminous compensation. Fans believe their devotion should be rewarded with championships. In doing so, they misunderstand their role as customers of a business that promises nothing but entertainment played by the rules, not a certain result. They both think that an extension of effort merits a chosen result, when we’ve seen chance interfere far too often. And too many owners treat both players and fans as chattel, bleeding both athlete and fan for all they’re worth.
It is in this arena of American life in which a domestic abuse prevention group involved with the NFL is telling a domestic abuser that his return to a pro football field is the final step in his public redemption. And what message does that send? For one, it says that real redemption is truly found on the public stage, on a football field. And A Call to Men is telling other abusers, their survivors and victims, and their families that redemption comes with a public shaming and an apology.
“He is seeing the bigger picture,” said Ted Bunch, the other co-founder of A Call to Men, about Rice. “He has a desire to compete again, but also to make a difference in the world. This is what mistakes should be about: learning from them and teaching others. We've been in front of a lot of batterers. He is as transparent as I've seen, and as sincere as I've seen.” In a self-aggrandizing display, Porter told ESPN that he anticipated that A Call to Men would garner criticism. “A lot of people think we should kick him to the curb and his name should be mud forever. But how great would it be if everyone who made a mistake made it their mission to make sure a million people don’t make the same mistake?”
To use the word “mistake” in this instance is the bigotry of low expectations made manifest for domestic abusers, and a sign of how lazily we continue to address the crimes they commit—to say nothing of the women whom they victimize. Both men use that word in reference to a purposeful punch in the face. It speaks volumes of the organization’s newfound and misguided urgency in anointing men like Ray when it still should be most concerned with the well-being of women like Janay.
I don’t argue that out of a desire to be chivalrous. In her criticism of A Call to Men’s remarks, domestic violence awareness activist Sil Lai Abrams noted that 80 percent of black high school girls report having been hit, slapped or otherwise hurt on purpose by a male partner, and that a black woman is 35 percent more likely to be battered and more than twice as likely to be murdered by a current or former partner than a white woman. Rice need not bear all of these statistics on his shoulders for one act, but it’s utterly irresponsible for a credible anti-violence voice to say that his contrition—all we’ve seen as evidence that he’s a changed man—somehow merits the continuation of a lucrative pro football career. Rice doesn’t deserve a job in the NFL, nor even the chance at one. Even without a punch to his wife’s head in his past, that kind of thing isn’t just handed out.
Besides, I’d argue that Rice has received the second chance that truly matters. Janay gave it to him when she married him despite his abuse and continues to support him. She didn’t have to do that, and he seems to understand that. Rice himself has seemingly accepted that putting on an NFL uniform again isn’t the ultimate redemption. I’m curious to know why his backers fail to understand that.
Update: The founders of A Call to Men apologized for their ESPN remarks in an email to supporters late Wednesday night, writing that they "were wrong to independently endorse Rice's second chance at a football career" and that the group "took action without consulting the community that we are so privileged to work for and with, and without thoughtfully considering the impact of our endorsement."