I don’t follow football all that closely, so feel free to disregard my opinions on anything remotely related to football. However, the following bullet points are facts and not opinions:
- Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and I both graduated from the same high school in New Rochelle, New York.
- My family are longtime residents of New Rochelle.
- My mother, in particular, is a huge football fan. By day, she works with violent offenders in the Bronx and has taught legions of social workers their trade. I have a reason for bringing this up. Hang in there.
- My uncle, like Ray Rice, played on the New Rochelle high school football team. He is a highly-regarded and widely-beloved professor at Harvard who recently wrote a brilliant book with my aunt. He also is a teacher who has schooled scores of doctors. Again, remember this point for later.
- Ray Rice came to New Rochelle City Hall after winning last year’s Super Bowl, and was greeted by an adoring crowd.
- I took my six-year-old niece over to City Hall to check out the festivities. We watched Ray Rice receive the key to the city. Ray Rice was publicly labeled a good guy.
- My niece does not care about football.
- My niece does love a parade.
Watch this video, and maybe you’ll see the two of us somewhere in the background:
- Six days after that happy occasion, Ray Rice was arrested for assaulting his fiancee in an elevator in an Atlantic City casino.
- The court of public opinion — Facebook, Twitter, television, newspapers, loud public conversations — condemned Ray Rice for domestic abuse, although at the time the Baltimore Ravens maintained an odd (to say the least) stance that the fiancee was partially to blame for the incident.
- The NFL suspended Ray Rice for a full two days.
- A little more than a month later, Ray Rice married his fiancee, the same woman he knocked out in an elevator.
- The story left the front pages for a while.
- This morning, TMZ released security camera footage from the elevator, showing Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancee and then dragging her unconscious body out the door.
- Everybody went crazy again. Ray Rice was labeled a bad guy.
- This afternoon, the Baltimore Ravens announced they have terminated Ray Rice’s contract.
- Everybody who was angry this morning is celebrating the news now. They got rid of Ray Rice! Fuck that guy, right?
- The story will soon leave the front page. We’ve got football season to worry about!
Speaking from my own perspective, it is a cardinal sin any and every time a man hits a woman, whether he or she be famous or otherwise. That is why I stopped reading Charles Bukowski’s work the second after I saw footage of him slugging his wife. Judge the art; not the artist. But sometimes, maybe, you gotta judge both. Or not. We all have a lifetime of individual experiences. We all have our boundaries. We all decide what we can or cannot live with. I personally cannot abide the thought of a man hitting a woman. That’s me. I try not to judge anyone, but I admit I judge people who do that.
A lot of people are judging Ray Rice today. A lot of people are judging him very harshly. I get it. I watched the video. His actions in that video are deplorable; objectively criminal and subjectively hideous. And yet for some reason — uncharacteristically if you know me personally — I can’t help but feel more sad today than angry. Maybe it’s because Ray Rice was, until very recently, a hometown hero and because I saw him up close and because he sure seemed like a nice enough kid. Maybe it’s because I’ve done plenty of abhorrent things (if not that particular thing) which I’m glad were never caught on video and broadcast to the world.
Maybe it’s the Greek tragedy of it all — I literally watched this kid’s hero status confiscated in a day. He’s been instantly excommunicated by everyone with an internet connection. Maybe the implication that a thirty-second video can ruin a life makes me nervous. Almost certainly I’m profoundly troubled by the fact that pretty much everybody, myself included, is far more comfortable calling for the blood of the aggressor rather than taking even a moment to contemplate the plight of the injured. (PLEASE see this thoughtful, persuasive piece about exactly that.)
And I don’t like this trend of concentrating all of our collective sins onto one sacrificial figure who we burn in effigy and then promptly discard, looking for the next one. Ray Rice hit a woman and we all saw it. We hate the act and so we hate him. He lost his high-profile job and took a crippling loss to his fame and he’ll (probably, since he isn’t quite as famous as a pop singer like Chris Brown — who you can catch singing and dancing this week on The Tonight Show!) always be a pariah, his name forever synonymous with his one foulest deed. Soon it’ll be easy to mostly forget Ray Rice and move on.
It needs to be easy, because otherwise we’d have to admit we’re complicit.
This is the part no football fan (or any consumer of popular culture) will like. Take a step back from the anger of the moment. Think about the more global reality. Football is about hitting. That’s a large part of the appeal. This guy’s day consists of hitting people, or practicing to hit people. It’s what he’s trained to do. It’s what he’s ridiculously well-paid to do. It’s what gets him the key to the city he came from, regardless of the fact that being good at football is quantifiably less important than, for example, teaching, or fixing sick people. In America, we value the people who hit. That’s why boxing is still a sport, despite it being an insane thing to do, medically speaking. That’s why we continue to worship the young, beautiful Muhammad Ali as The Greatest, while being supremely uncomfortable with the way he appears now — despite the fact it’s a direct result of why we worship him in the first place. That’s why I watch as many action movies as I do — damn straight, there’s no way I’m exempting myself from this screed. That’s why I get a small thrill recalling the occasional physical outbursts and brief slugfests I’ve had in my life, even while I’m in the process of regretting them. This is how I am and this is also how too much of our society is. We want to be entertained and we are too uncomfortable with the repercussions.
Yes, Ray Rice did something horrific and unthinkable and he ought to be punished. Yes, we like when he sacks the opposing team and wins the game but we expect him to show better self-control in his personal life. Yes, it’s abominable that he didn’t. But today even as I think those things I also can’t help thinking, if I were a twenty-something Super Bowl champion — a kid — who found fame and fortune from focusing my physical power in a single direction, and if I got angry enough at somebody off the field to throw a punch, can I really say with absolute certainty that I could or would stay my hand? I’d like to drop a big ‘yes’ right here, but I’m genuinely afraid there’s another answer. Can you say any different?
If you can, well then great. Enjoy that sainthood. Back on earth, the rest of us have got a lot more thinking to do.
UPDATE (9/10/2014): After speaking to my mother about what I wrote here, she pointed out to me that I know far less about what a running back actually does than I seem to assert in the paragraphs above. She did agree that my point still stands, maybe even more so, but now you know why I started with that very first sentence.
UPDATE (9/11/2014): New Rochelle High School took down #27.