Ray Rice Story Shows the Power of a Tape

September 9, 2014

If there were no tapes of Ray Rice knocking out his wife or dragging her off the elevator, I don't believe he would have been suspended at all by the NFL.

It's not that Rice did something wrong; he undoubtedly did. It's that Rice did something wrong and we have video of him doing it.

The reality in a modern social media era is this: If there's a tape of you doing something wrong, you're done. If there's no tape, most people don't take notice and the story fades quickly.

That's because stories with words are complicated and difficult to comprehend — there are dueling narratives, there are high-priced lawyers in charge of weaving webs of doubt, there are exculpatory circumstances. Lots of people can't read well enough to even understand a criminal indictment. But woe unto you if there is video or audio of your transgression.

From Riley Cooper's racial slur to Rice's punch to Donald Sterling's tapes, nothing stokes a social media mob like audio or video of unacceptable behavior. If Rice is charged with the exact same crime and the exact same fact pattern occurs absent these videos, no one blinks. He plays this past Sunday and it barely registers. Don't believe me? 49ers defensive tackle Ray McDonald has been charged with felony assault on his pregnant fiancee. He played against the Cowboys on Sunday. Most haven't paid attention to the incident at all. Why? There's no video.   

Floyd Mayweather Jr. has been accused of hitting women on multiple occasions. Hell, he went to jail for it. No significant public opprobrium follows Mayweather because there's no video. NBA head coach Jason Kidd punched his former wife. Most either don't know or don't care.

The list of athletes with domestic violence charges filed against them is long and dotted with some of the most famous names in sports. Most of these men faced insubstantial penalties from the leagues, if any, for their actions. Most fans shrugged their shoulders and ignored the stories. So why is Rice now the standard bearer for all that's awful in the world? It's simple: Because there's video of his punch.

Here are seven other thoughts on the Ray Rice mess.    

1. Prosecutors are dodging all blame.

Even if Janay Rice weren't willing to cooperate in this case, prosecutors had a video of Ray Rice knocking her out. How in the world was pretrial diversion the penalty here? Every single juror on earth would see this video and say, "OK, he's guilty. All in favor raise your hands." This trial would have lasted five minutes. 

Given that we know the prosecutors watched this video — something the NFL steadfastly denies it did — shouldn't we be asking how in the world Rice escaped with no real penalty? After all, it's not the NFL's job to punish players when they do something wrong, it's the criminal court system's job. Focusing on the NFL's response creates an artificial villain; the prosecutor's office exists to handle these cases. It failed to do so in a matter befitting the seriousness of the offense. 

2. Why do we blame the NFL here?

The moment Roger Goodell implemented the personal conduct policy in 2007, he connected the NFL to player punishment. I wrote seven years ago that the league should fear this exact situation. Once you take on the mantle of moral authority, you become the target when an angry public seeks to vent its rage.

It's not the league's job to punish players for criminal acts; that's why we have a court system. Yet no one is criticizing the court system. Think about how odd this is. Do we blame the CEO of McDonald's when one of its employees commits a crime? Did anyone even think to blame the Ravens owner for trotting out Rice and his wife to the media at a team facility? Not really. 

Major League Baseball, the NHL, the NBA — none of these leagues has brought the hammer down on their players like the NFL has. Yet none of these leagues has been criticized for its response to off-field behavior. Remember, David Stern let Kobe Bryant play basketball while he was standing trial for rape. I don't remember a bit of criticism. 

To me, arguments that Goodell should lose his job over this incident are laughable. But if he does, Goodell will have only himself to blame. By putting his league in the punishment game, he opened the door to this exact situation.   

3. Let's toss some blame on fans.

Fans are amoral when it comes to what players on their own teams do. They don't care about off-field behavior so long as the player involved makes their team more likely to win a game. This is why owners have long been able to overlook felonious player behavior. Witness the Ravens fan reaction to Rice when he appeared in public for the first time after his suspension. Fans gave him a standing ovation. Many — women included! — wore his jersey to show their support.

Why? Because they want the Ravens to win and Rice is a good player. Fans have a willful blindness. They believe the best, dismiss the worst. What's changed, in addition to the video, is all of these player behavior stories are now national. Where once a player arrest made only local news, where it was justified or downplayed by the team and loyal members of the media echoing team talking points to maintain access, now the rest of the nation can react. The Ravens didn't release Rice because of Ravens fans, they released him because of reactions from NFL fans.  

4. Why is Rice being suspended more now?

He got two games for knocking out his wife and dragging her off the elevator and then once the new video of Rice knocking out his wife emerged, he was released and indefinitely suspended. What exactly did the NFL think happened that led to Janay Rice being dragged unconscious off the elevator? What changed with the new video? We knew beforehand that Ray Rice knocked her out. All the new video did was show us him knocking her out. So what's the justification for the change in penalty?

We all know that Rice wasn't suspended for what he did, he was suspended for how people reacted to what he did when they saw the video. But if I'm Rice's lawyer, I'm filing a lawsuit to get him reinstated to the NFL. The only thing the NFL can do is argue that he, and maybe his wife, lied about what happened in the elevator. But regardless of what their story from inside the elevator was, he knocked her out. Shouldn't the penalty have been consistent regardless of the video's release?

Again, I believe that if neither of these videos ever comes out, Rice doesn't miss a single game.  

5. Ray Rice doesn't stand alone here. 

My visceral reaction any time a social media mob attacks any one person eventually turns to empathy for the person being attacked. Even if the person being attacked deserves severe punishment, the lack of nuance and context makes me sick to my stomach.

Maybe I'm more scared of everyone having the same opinion than most, maybe I don't like the typecasting of any individual as entirely good or evil, but the entire absence of context in social media mobs is downright terrifying to me. Social media mobs take complex issues and dumb them down into individualized dramas. RAY RICE IS EVIL! FIRE ROGER GOODELL! Pitchforks, angry words, but the end result is they often miss their targets and trivialize the larger issues at stake — why does it take a video of an athlete punching his wife to make us care about domestic assault?

Ray Rice isn't a saint, but he's not the worst player to ever play in the NFL either. Not even close to it. Every NFL team has players who have been accused of more serious crimes than Rice. Demonizing Rice or Goodell ignores the larger issue here, that the prosecutor's office watched this video and chose to allow Rice to entre a pretrial diversionary program. Doesn't that say much more about our society's views on domestic assault than what Goodell does? That's the story here, not the drama surrounding Rice.   

Let me also say this: Sooner or later someone at the center of a social media mob is going to commit suicide and we're all going to be a little bit to blame. Will it cause us to reconsider the way we act as a group? I hope so, but I have my doubts.  

6. TMZ is now the most trusted name in sports news. 

Think about it, from reporting the Jameis Winston sexual assault investigation to the Sterling tapes to the Rice elevator videos, TMZ has broken the three most viral sports stories of the past 10 months. If you had to pick a sports media company that you trust to tell the truth no matter the consequences, can you top TMZ?

I can't. 

Speaking of which...

7. ESPN brought out accused double murderer Ray Lewis to talk about the Rice incident.

Lewis said that his situation and Rice's were nothing alike. He was, of course, completely correct. Rice wasn't charged with double murder, didn't hide a bloody suit that no one has found more than 14 years later, didn't suddenly turn state's evidence two weeks into a double murder trial to testify against his two co-defendants while pleading guilty to obstruction of justice and didn't pay millions of dollars in wrongful death settlements to the victims' families. If Lewis's double murder charges happened today as opposed to in 2000, it's likely Lewis never plays in the NFL again. As is, he's a Hall of a Famer in waiting employed by Disney with a statue outside the Ravens stadium.

The message is simple: If you're good enough at sports, you can get away with murder.

Just so long as it isn't on video.