The problems of Ray Rice aren’t exactly the problems of the NFL writ large, but violence lies at the heart of them all. Rice, who was caught on videotape kayoing his fiancée (now his wife) Janay Parker during an altercation at an Atlantic City casino, has obvious problems with violence and anger—problems that won’t be solved by playing football, something league commissioner Roger Goodell (who has the unenviable job of putting the most positive spin on his league’s many violence-related problems) has said Rice can no longer do.
Ray Rice won’t go to jail for punching Parker—those charges were dropped months ago—but TMZ’s recent release of additional and damning footage of his elevator skirmish ensured his conviction in the court of public opinion. He’s finished, or at least as finished as an athlete with a couple hundred miles left under the hood can be (see, for example, the brief Philadelphia renaissance of Michael Vick after he had spent 23 months in prison). For the moment, Rice’s sole remaining function consists of coaxing loose-fingered professional athletes to tweet supportive statements for which they are immediately forced to apologize.
Rice committed a barbaric act, but the NFL is a billion-dollar, government-protected monopoly built around its own special brand of barbarism.
Ray Rice is a violent man who played America’s most violent game, but this doesn’t explain the whole of it. In fact, the extant statistics show that NFL players are no more or less violent than other males in their age 18-to-35 cohort (an especially violent cohort, to be sure, which is depressing in its own right). But actually seeing the punch, with a powerful man cold-cocking his bride-to-be, proved a bridge too far: former NFL offensive lineman Mark Schlereth nearly wept on camera, announcer James Brown gave an emotional “won’t somebody please think of the children?” pregame speech about the horrors of domestic violence, and National Organization for Women president Terry O’Neill declared that the NFL “has a violence against women problem.”
O’Neill isn’t far off the mark, I suppose, but she’s aiming at too narrow a target: As James Brown noted, men in general have a violence problem, and women have all too often borne the brunt of that violence. Schlereth, a big powerful fellow, almost shed tears when made to view the horrors contained on the latest TMZ tape; would he have been reduced to a sobbing mess if forced to endure hours of similar footage acquired covertly during my childhood and the childhoods of individuals even less fortunate than me, who repeatedly witnessed female caregivers subjected to such treatment? Search any economically depressed area and you’re likely to discover hundreds of such incidents, invisible because unseen yet every bit as ghoulish as what Rice did.
Although no one knows how the second tape leaked, Ray Rice became one of the NFL’s hottest-button problems after it did. Before that, he was but a tiny part of the league’s most significant violence-related problem, which involves covering up all the violence. Roger Goodell, son of a senator, has certainly demonstrated that he knows how to play this oh-so-political game: deny everything until forced to make grudging, half-arsed admissions.
In Rice’s case, the league either concealed or failed to grasp the severity of what the star running back had done: footage that leaked in March of him dragging an unconscious Janay Parker from an elevator warranted only a two-game suspension (as compared to an indefinite suspension for Michael Vick, whose misdeeds were deemed “cruel and reprehensible” by Goodell yet involved abusing canines rather than actual people). Prior to TMZ’s second leak, the Associate Press reported that law enforcement officials had sent a copy of that video to the NFL, which apparently ignored it and, when asked about this oversight, responded through its spokesman that although “we have no knowledge of this, we will look into it.”
Football’s problem with violence is exactly like Rice’s problem with it: Fans watching the games have seen only the first part of the video.
After the Rice contretemps went viral, Goodell had to fall on his sword, which is his signature move these days. In the ultimate team sport, where eleven players function as one and the contributions of any single athlete are difficult to discern, Goodell always appears willing to take one for the team. Incidents like Rice’s “revised” suspension show that player discipline is conducted by fiat, with the league’s head honchos essentially making up the rules as they go along, punishing offenders who have appear on the prime-time news far more severely than less newsworthy but equally guilty peers. More troubling by far, however, is the league’s slow backpedaling on the issue of concussions and player safety (chronicled in excruciating detail in Steven Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada’s recent book League of Denial).
Rice committed a barbaric act, but the NFL is a billion-dollar, government-protected monopoly built around its own special brand of barbarism. There’s no evidence that Rice was suffering from any head trauma-induced dementia, in the manner of former gridiron great Mike Webster or murderous pro wrestler Chris Benoit, but there’s undeniable evidence that he’s one of hundreds of hired hands ground up by the league’s power brokers to make their daily bread.
Violence against women in this society (and every other one) is uncontrollable and rampant; the NFL, meanwhile, operates a system of carefully regulated male-on-male violence that has long since proven itself to be one of the world’s least safe sports. That ultra-violence is further sanitized by the corporate structure of team management—elaborate coaching hierarchies and administrative staffs give the illusion of Madison Avenue cubicles, not bloody scrapping in the fields around Agincourt—but, sanitized or no, bone-crunching hits are what the league’s fans pay to see. Even as the Baltimore Ravens grappled with the news of Rice’s indefinite suspension, longtime Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs characterized his team’s divisional rivalry with the Pittsburgh Steelers as one of absolute hatred, then exited the tunnel before Thursday’s game wearing a gladiator mask.
Suggs’ good-natured display of hatred and nod to violent Coliseum confrontations of yore received favorable write-ups in the press. The connections to Rice’s predicament, if any were made at all, had to do with Suggs’ leadership enabling the Ravens to overcome the sudden loss of their offensive centerpiece and defeat their aforementioned hated rivals. For four quarters, Suggs and his fellow players visited sanctioned, helmet-against-helmet violence upon one another, while fans—many of whom are fantasy “owners” of these players, thus already symbolically aligned with management—cheered on this lurid spectacle.
Football’s problem with violence is in one very particular sense exactly like Rice’s problem with it: Fans watching the games have seen only the first part of the video, the easy part, Janay Parker’s body being dragged from the elevator with no precise idea of how she wound up like that. What they have yet to see, and what Roger Goodell and the owners he serves hope they never see, are the thousands of tiny micro-concussions that are turning players’ brains into jelly. There will be no coming back for football when its own metaphorical “second video” leaks, because at that point even the most hardcore fans couldn’t avert their eyes from the manifold hurts being visited upon well-paid but ultimately doomed employees. Football diehards will have their Mark Schlereth-style “come to Jesus” moments when forced to witness this violence at its most visceral and dehumanizing, and the most hypocritical professional sport of all, worse than the NBA with its sub rosa racism and MLB with its performance-enhancing drug deceptions, may finally receive its just deserts.