For those of you who haven’t heard about Ray Rice, this is the skinny:
FEB-MARCH – Ray Rice, a talented running back for the Baltimore Ravens, was tried earlier this year for domestic violence charges against his then-fiancee, now wife. There was surveillance footage at Revel, a (now-closed) casino in Atlantic City, from a hallway where Rice is shown dragging his unconscious fiancee out of an elevator.
JULY – The NFL suspends Rice for two games. The NFL is widely criticized, particularly because other drug-related suspensions (Josh Gordon) were far heavier.
AUGUST – Roger Goodell, NFL commissioner, admits that a mistake was made when deciding on Rice’s punishment. The NFL instates a policy that will have players facing a 6-month suspension for a first domestic violence offense, then a potential lifetime ban following that one.
SEPTEMBER 8 – Footage from INSIDE the elevator at Revel is released by TMZ. Ray Rice is shown punching Janay Palmer, his then-fiancee and knocking her unconscious. The Ravens cut Rice from the team. The NFL suspends him indefinitely.
There are plenty of developments for this story, including new revelations about if/when the NFL knew about the video. If there is evidence of a cover-up, Roger Goodell, arguably the most important man in North-American sports, could lose his job. All of this because of how a domestic violence case was handled.
What I discovered this week while listening to the endless rants of talking heads, was that the role of the NFL is different than what it used to be. The biggest controversies of the NFL in recent years have revolved around concussions, amount of games, and guaranteed contracts. These are all player matters. What I see with this Ray Rice case is that people are clamoring for the NFL to set the tone for the country in matters that revolve around more than just player safety and concerns. The people want the NFL to make a statement about domestic violence for the whole country.
The role of athletes and sports is evolving as media, and particularly sports media begins to increase in it’s grip on the 24-hour news cycle. The NFL is not just called to make examples out of players that make late-hits or use PEDs. Examples need to be made regarding off-the-field conduct including recreational drug use, driving drunk and domestic violence. The NFL is asked to not be a thermometer of public interest and outcry, but held accountable to it’s role as a thermostat, setting the tone for what is acceptable not just in player life, but life for all people in this country. The NFL is a behemoth, pulling in billions per year in revenue and dominating TV spot it chooses to be in. Now it’s being asked to use that influence for more than itself.