Thoughts on Ray Rice

R-RiceIn some ways, there is a whole lot to say about this–and a whole little. This is all as complex as it is shockingly simple.

The side that leans toward complexity? That side would have us ruminate at the intersections of morality, sports, heroworship, sexism, victimhood, victim-blaming, and personal life–or, more accurately, the responsibility or lack thereof we display in our personal lives. There is no clear way to tackle any of that. I’m not smart enough to do it here. All I can do right now, maybe because I’m somewhat shell-shocked (though the shock of today’s events has been mitigated by a summer of gradual loss of faith in the NFL, the Ravens, and Ray Rice), is try to process these past few hours as … well, as a human being.

For lack of a better phrase, and at the risk of sounding patronizing, not harsh enough, and Peter King-like all at once (I promise I don’t mean to), I’m extremely disappointed that Ray Rice is not the person I envisioned him to be. I’m nauseated at the thought of the person he seems to be, or maybe clearly is. That’s a peculiar idea, because I really never thought about him on a personal level before a couple of months ago, after rooting for him for the past seven years. Before this all began, Rice was a milquetoast Good Guy in my mind. I had a distant sense of the “community work” he was involved in, though that’s a phrase so bandied about I have no idea what it means. I knew he was involved in an anti-bullying campaign, which I admired. Ironically, given what we know now, I knew I felt his tweets were so positive and sentimental they couldn’t possibly be how he really felt about anything–but I wasn’t going to hold eye-rolly, listen-to-me-be-a-role-model chatter against him.

On the field, excluding last year, I loved Ray Rice for the same reason every Ravens fan did: He was an explosive, game-changing player who had a knack for saving us–as displayed by that otherworldly fourth-and-29 conversion in San Diego, symbolized by the leftmost square of this blog’s header image. (I sighed realizing earlier today that it was there.) It can be reasonably argued that if not for his transformation into Superman for those 15 seconds (and the refs [maybe] spotting him an extra half-yard out of sheer awe), we don’t make the playoffs that year and thus don’t win the Super Bowl. So, to get it out of the way: Yes, a part of my sports-heart will always cling to moments in time that are positively attached to Ray Rice; moments that made me emotional, hopeful, and all of the good things that come with rooting for your team. I’m not proud of that, I’m a little confused by it, but I admit that it’s there and I think it’s probably normal.

But Ray Rice doesn’t mean anything to me anymore.

I’m happy he’s cut.

His fall from grace is so deserved and so complete–and, in terms of these last few hours, has been so quick–that it’s dizzying and mortifying and … oddly makes me sad. That sadness feels both deep and stupid at the same time. I feel more immediately and cuttingly sad that someone I liked, if only because he played on my favorite team, is probably a bad person. I get a more indistinct, hopeless, existential sadness thinking to the fact that Janay Rice is just one of millions of women in the world tethered to men who hurt them. She’s just one of the … lucky? … few who has had her abuse caught on tape, voiding the secrecy that usually protects domestic violence.

I’ll say it again. I’m glad we cut Ray Rice. I’m glad he’s no longer a Baltimore Raven. I’m glad he no longer represents the team or the city that I love so much I’ve cried for.

***

It always leaves you feeling breathless–as if you’re treading water in a big black lake with no bottom or land in sight–when you find yourself suddenly in a moment of history. In terms of sports lore, this is an episode that is destined to live on forever. And it’s going to do that not only because of the morality/sports intersections, but because of the colossally stupid ways that every institution involved reacted to it. Those reactions exposed all the terribleness in everything.

They exposed that organizations are OK with being willfully ignorant if it means keeping a player who is very talented. Because if the Ravens never saw the actual footage of Rice punching his then-girlfriend, it was because they chose not to. They certainly knew it existed. (And that’s if they didn’t actually see it.) If you don’t look at existing, irrefutable video evidence of a potential crime that involves a person related to your business (if you’re the owner, Steve Bisciotti) and to your success on the field (if you’re the coach, John Harbaugh), then you are choosing to live in blissful ignorance. And you are doing so because, deep down, you don’t want to confront an obvious truth and do what’s morally right.

Those reactions exposed how moronically fans will act to show they still support their favorite players and teams. I get that there is a certain amount of passionate defending and blind-eye-turning that goes into being a fan–every team in every sport has something shady that somebody once did–but cheering for Rice louder than normal during the preseason? Giving fellow Ravens fans the stink eye because they dared boo him? Saying Rice should be given a second chance because (1) we don’t know the whole story (as if the right context would justify her being knocked unconscious), or because (2) she forgave him, which means we should all forgive him, since apparently forgiveness can be transitive? No. Just no.

If you’re a Ravens fan who did any of the above, you were–at least briefly–part of the problem. I know that’s not the most popular opinion in Baltimore right now, and you are welcome to debate me, but I hope you can see why I say that.

When your heroes do bad things, as heroes are wont to do, you don’t make society or life better for anyone by living in denial, inventing double-standard excuses, and refusing to empathize with the people who were actually hurt.

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Baltimore Ravens at New England PatriotsMost of all, those reactions exposed how the NFL–so monolithic, so epic by design–is also breathtakingly tone-deaf when it comes to real world issues that exist outside of its self-made bubble. You see that same sort of tone-deafness in comments online–especially on stupid, horrible, no good sites like this one (seriously, don’t read the comments there, ever, if you value your gray matter), where mouths are CONSTANTLY frothing with ragespittle. (How dare reporters care about Michael Sam’s story! How dare people want the Redskins to change their terminally fucked up name!) The NFL has the same mindset as these commenters–nothing matters but FOOTBAW–only the NFL wears a suit and has press releases. That’s why it had to have its hand held like a child before it figured out that a guy who smokes pot doesn’t deserve a punishment EIGHT TIMES WORSE than a guy who physically assaults a woman.

On that note: A strange part of me thinks it shouldn’t matter that Rice punched a woman. A part of me thinks it should be all the same if he had clocked a man who’d said something that ticked him off.

But I know it matters that he attacked a woman because we live in a sexist society and world. Duh, yes. It matters that he attacked a woman because Stephen A. Smith was apparently so self-assured in his belief that women can “provoke” and cause their own beatings that he shared that idea with millions of people, live, on ESPN.

It matters because the Ravens’ own PR staff churned out a tweet during Rice’s first terrible press conference–you know, the one in which he apologized to everyone but the person he punched, who was sitting right next to him–that reveled in the fact his wife took responsibility for “the role that she played the night of the incident.”

It matters because domestic violence “is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States.” It matters because there are twice as many ANIMAL shelters in the U.S. as there are shelters for FEMALE HUMAN BEINGS who have suffered abuse.

It matters because, if you watch the video closely, when Rice punches his now-wife for the first time, her initial reaction is not flabbergast or shock; it’s an angry, almost unafraid charge toward him that, if I were to play armchair psychologist, indicates a familiarity with violence–or at least a longer, deeper history with it from him.

It matters because my grandmother used to be married to a man who abused her, and her children can still remember what her screams sounded like.

***

Everything about how the Ravens handled this, from the top down, was wrong.

Our owner approved this masterclass in fail. Our locker room was willing to side with Rice so long as his story was that he, a 200-pound athlete, had only punched a woman because she hit him first. (Now Ravens players are bothering to feel angry and indignant–but that’s only because the video proved they were lied to.) Our coach bristled and gave non-answers when reporters asked him questions during the offseason, which forced his brother to come out and say that domestic violence would never be tolerated in San Francisco. And, in all seriousness, how critically goddamn wrong does a person have to be for JIM HARBAUGH to be the voice of reason?

I look back and wonder: All those times that I rooted for Ray Rice–when he bailed out Flacco on broken play after broken play like he was born to do it; when he reeled off that 83-yard touchdown run to start our shellacking of New England in the playoffs; and, yes, when he saved our Super Bowl season by outrunning the whole Chargers defense–was I rooting for an abuser?

I might have been. 

… Hang in there, Ravens fans. It’s not about us–this is much bigger than we are. But our team will win games this year without Ray Rice, and we’ll be better for not rooting for him.