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As we enter domestic violence awareness month, it seems appropriate to discuss one of the most publicly visible cases of domestic violence in the past few years and its results.

A little more than a year ago, Ray Rice and his wife, Janay Palmer, were arrested in Atlantic City, setting off a chain of events that would result in a deeper look at domestic violence in the NFL, and the US as a whole.

The story began in February of 2014, when Rice was arrested after what was then considered “a small altercation” with his wife. However, a video came to light that clearly depicted Rice dragging an unconscious Palmer from an elevator. After seeing the video, a grand jury indicted Rice for third degree aggravated assault, for which Rice faced five years in jail if convicted.

However, Rice enrolled in a pretrial intervention program, and would avoid trial or conviction if he completed the program. In July of 2014, the NFL doled out punishment to Rice in the form of a two game suspension and a $58,000 fine, which was widely considered insufficient. It was only after more videos came to light clearly displaying Rice punching and knocking out his wife that his team, the Ravens, dropped him.

Whether they want it or not, NFL players serve as role models to thousands of kids. One of the most watched events in the United States last year was the Super Bowl. Little kids grow up watching Sunday Night Football, and look up to the players they see on the field. This raises the question, why was Rice initially only suspended for two games?

The issue was exacerbated by the fact that at around the same time, another player was given a four-game suspension for having THC (one of the active chemicals in marijuana) in his system. People were outraged that assaulting his wife got Rice a two game suspension while being found having THC in one’s system elicited a four-week suspension. The implication of Rice’s lack of punishment is that either his position gives him special status, or, the crime is not bad enough to warrant actual punishment.

This lack of punishment should in fact be the reverse; since NFL players serve as role models to millions of children, they should be held to a higher standard than regular citizens, as malfeasance on their part sends the wrong message to American children. The question that we are faced with now, a year after the scandal, is not whether he deserved the punishment or whether or not the punishment fit the crime. We know that Rice’s actions warranted punishment, and that Rice’s initial punishment did not fit the crime. Rather, our question is to what extent the NFL fumbled the Ray Rice affair and multiple other cases of prosecution and punishment of NFL players.

The rationale for punishing NFL players less is pretty simple. The main reason that some advocate for light punishment for NFL players is that the game is their livelihood. These men have worked their entire lives to become football players, and have fought against almost unbeatable odds statistically to get to where they are today. Therefore, when the NFL suspends players, they are taking away their livelihood. If the NFL goes further and ejects them, they have completely taken away a job that the player has worked extremely hard to get.

While the NFL does have to think before they give out punishment, the general consensus is that the NFL still mishandled the case. Stavro Papadakis, a member of M-A’s sports leadership class and varsity football team, agrees that “Rice committed a crime, and served as a bad role model to young kids. The fact that Rice is being allowed to come back to the NFL after a year just shows that the NFL isn’t really going to crack down on its players.” Papadakis’ sentiment echoes that of many people around the nation. Rice is currently a free agent for the NFL, and can play again if he is picked up by a team. So in summary, Rice began the process with a possible five years in prison and ended with only a 1 year suspension from the NFL and the Ravens dropping him.

The fact that Rice is being allowed back into the NFL as a free agent after only a year of suspension is emblematic of a larger problem. It seems that we, as a nation, are able to overlook crimes on the basis of a person’s fame. In the case of Ray Rice, we see that he was faced with criminal charges and ended up with a suspension. If we look further, we see even more egregious mishandlings of justice.

In early 2014, Darren Sharper, a former NFL player, was charged with two counts of rape after allegedly drugging and raping two women. This followed nine individual accusations of rape from a variety of women, and in one instance he was accused of being a “serial rapist.” Now, this is an incredibly serious offense. In multiple states, rape is a capital offense. Instead of Sharp being put in prison after pleading guilty to multiple rape and drug possession charges, Sharp was given lifetime probation, is not allowed to drink alcohol, and will be subject to drug and lie detector tests for the rest of his life. However, this pales in comparison to the years Sharp would have spent in prison. Sharp seems to have been given special treatment just based on his status.

So, if NFL players need to be held to a higher standard because they are role models, then how should the NFL do this? Well, firstly, the NFL needs to update its policies on rape, assault, and other major crimes. The NFL revised its policies after the Ray Rice scandal, but these changes do not seem to have had an immediate effect. They also need to enforce these further changes to the policy, and ensure that all crimes are immediately reported to the police, rather than being covered up or dealt with internally. This would ensure that any serious crimes are dealt with by the U.S. Justice Department.

The fact that a scandal the size of the Ray Rice affair was not enough to elicit the necessary change in the NFL mentioned above demonstrates a lack of public pressure on the NFL to make said changes. The NFL is a large money-earning entity, and although it is technically designated as a “nonprofit,” it is still incentivized to make a profit. If it saw a decrease in viewership, and therefore a decrease in profit, the NFL would make changes to regain its viewership. Thus the changes post Ray Rice scandal were not significant enough to elicit any kind of major change, and the public didn’t pressure the NFL enough to make changes.

This lack of pressure denotes a public desensitization of violence, domestic and otherwise. We see it in our culture (mainly TV, movies, games), and it is ingrained in our minds that violence is sort of a trifle, insignificant, because of its pure frequency. Violence has been introduced into our nation’s identity, and if we want to see any change, we have to take a stand against it.

Photo from Wiki Commons. 

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