Lila Shapiro-Cyr had never felt even a tinge of misgiving about the Ray Rice poster behind the fish tank in her boys’ room, about the No. 27 Ravens jersey her 9-year-old loved to wear during football season.
And yet earlier this week, the Baltimore attorney and mother of two found herself sharing an uncomfortable conversation with her sons about domestic violence and the complexities of idolizing public figures. Rice, the beaming presence on the wall of their Mt. Washington home, was suddenly a man accused of knocking his fiancée unconscious at a New Jersey casino.
“You have someone who really was, or is, one of the good guys,” Shapiro-Cyr said. “They love him, and until this, I thought what better person? There are other athletes for whom this wouldn’t be as surprising, and you wouldn’t be as disappointed. But this is tough.”
Her experience echoes the jarring reaction many fans feel after watching one of the city’s most admired athletes become the subject of nationwide scrutiny.
Those fans are now bracing for what’s next. Prosecutors in New Jersey are weighing the evidence against Rice — a move that carries the threat of more serious charges. The NFL is reviewing his actions and could impose sanctions, including a suspension. And some companies that have hired Rice to endorse their products are waiting for more facts to emerge.
With many waiting for an explanation, Rice has yet to comment publicly.
“Ray Rice is a father, a partner and a bastion of the community,” his attorney, Michael Diamondstein, said. “Would he like to comment about what actually transpired? I’ll leave that up to the public’s common sense. At this point in time, the only thing Ray can do is remain silent until such time as the prosecutor has decided where this matter will go.”
Rice already faced difficult questions about his football future after an injury-plagued 2013 season that ranked as his worst in six years with the Ravens. He seemed unusually moody at times in dealing with the corresponding criticisms of his play.
Even so, he maintained his reputation as a telegenic team leader whose size — at 5 feet 8, he is the shortest Raven — allowed fans to identify with him and whose strong words against bullying rang out across Baltimore.
As the fallout continues, however, his reputation is in jeopardy, according to fans and marketing experts. Meanwhile, friends and relatives say Rice and fiancee Janay Palmer are working on their relationship privately.
“I can’t think of another athlete in the area who has experienced this kind of rapid turn,” said Howe Burch, president of Baltimore-based TBC Advertising. “He’s probably the one player you’d least expect this to happen with.”
Even if Rice is legally absolved, he will never be able to erase the video images of him dragging Palmer from a Revel Casino elevator in the wee hours of a Saturday morning. The 50-second video on TMZ.com — combined with a court summons accusing Rice of knocking Palmer unconscious — exacerbated a situation that one of his attorneys, Andrew Alperstein, initially downplayed as a “very minor physical altercation.”
Rice and Palmer both face simple assault charges stemming from the Feb. 15 incident. Rice also faces the prospect of NFL discipline; a league source told The Baltimore Sun his actions are under review.
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome on Saturday said the organization would take a wait-and-see approach as details continue to emerge about the allegations.
“It doesn't look good, but I will reserve all of my comments until I get a chance to talk to Ray,” Newsome said at the NFL scouting combine. “The whole video needs to be reviewed. ... In any of those situations, it's very concerning. Up until we get all of the facts, we will allow the process to run its course."
Based on what he's been told from Rice's conversations with team officials, including head coach John Harbaugh and director of team security Darren Sanders, Newsome said he's encouraged.
“Right now, I feel very good about his side of the story," he said.
Coach John Harbaugh said Friday that he expects Rice to be with the team next season and alluded to the admirable characteristics Rice has demonstrated over many years.
“Yeah, there's a lot of facts, a lot of process that has to be worked through in anything like this,” Harbaugh told reporters Friday at the NFL’s annual scouting combine in Indianapolis. “There are a lot of question marks. Ray's character ... you guys know his character. You start with that.”
He added that Rice and Palmer are trying to work on their relationship in the wake of the incident.
“I love Janay,” Harbaugh said. “She's a great person. The two people, obviously they've got a couple of issues they have got to work through. They are both committed to doing that.”
Rice’s cousin, Bryan Shannon, said he has spoken with the couple and described the situation as “something very personal that they need to work out and get through together.”
He said the recent public scrutiny has been agonizing for those who have known and loved Rice before he became famous.
“Regardless of the outcome, it’s hard to watch the city and fans pass judgment on Ray and turn him into a monster when he has the biggest heart and is one of the most responsible people I know,” said Shannon, who lives in Owings Mills. “We know of his moral fiber. I’ve been with Ray for many things that haven’t come out in the public eye; we don’t call a news conference for everything he does in the community.”
Dave Richards, a childhood friend, exchanged “I love you” texts with the Ravens star during the week.
“When I heard about it, I didn’t believe it,” Richards said of the casino incident. “This isn’t the Ray we know.”
He added that Rice and Palmer have worked through other problems in the past. “If you could watch them for a week, you’d see the love they have for each other.”
Whatever Rice is going through personally, he has opted not to comment publicly. Diamondstein says they will not try Rice’s legal case in the media.
Crisis counselors often advise public figures to speak out as quickly as possible when they’re the focus of negative stories. But in the midst of uncertain legal situations, attorneys often advise the opposite.
Burch said he would urge Rice to remain silent as long as his legal situation is in flux. “I don’t think he can do himself any favors by talking right now,” the advertising executive said.
Dozens of NFL players, including Ravens star linebacker Terrell Suggs — who was never charged with a crime nor suspended by the NFL — have faced allegations of domestic violence in the last decade. Many received one- or two-game suspensions from the league, but they rarely generated the national headlines Rice is now facing.
Burch said Rice will confront two distinct audiences in trying to mend his image. For a national audience with little knowledge of his community work, the video might be hard to get past, Burch said. But local fans, with whom Rice has built goodwill for six years, will be more apt to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least until all the facts of the legal case are disclosed.
“I think many people here are puzzled by what happened and might view it as an anomaly based on what they’ve known previously,” Burch said. “He has that reservoir of goodwill to fall back on.”
Rice’s sponsors have offered a mixed reaction. Evan Berney, the owner of local used car dealer Carbiz, has stood by the player. M&T Bank spokesman Phil Hosmer said the company doesn’t “have enough information to comment right now, but we are evaluating information as it comes in to us.”
A spokeswoman for Gillette, which has worked with Rice in the past, said the company has no current relationship with him. Chuck Huggins, the president of Xenith Football Helmets, declined to comment on the status of his business’ relationship with Rice.
The Ravens have endured previous legal crises involving some of their most prominent players, including murder charges against linebacker Ray Lewis and federal drug distribution charges against running back Jamal Lewis.
The organization patiently stood behind each player, accepting Ray Lewis back as a leader after he pleaded to obstruction of justice and relying on Jamal Lewis as a key contributor after he served four months in federal prison.
It remains to be seen if the Ravens will be as steadfast with Rice, who signed a five-year, $35 million deal with the Ravens in July 2012. Before the incident, team officials had said he would be back in 2014 despite his on-field difficulties last season. If the Ravens were to cut the running back, they would lose $5.5 million from the $130 million they are allowed to spend on salaries in 2014, a substantial amount to be dedicated to a player who isn’t with the team.
If Rice remains with the team, an NFL suspension is possible. Commissioner Roger Goodell has generally suspended players one to three games for domestic violence incidents, with the stiffer penalties reserved for repeat offenders.
Former Ravens Fabian Washington and Cary Williams received one- and two-game suspensions, respectively, for domestic incidents, with Williams facing the penalty even though he was never arrested for what his agent termed a family situation.
On the legal front, Rice and Palmer face charges of simple assault, a misdemeanor-level crime punishable by fines or up to a year in jail, according to authorities.
The Atlantic County prosecutor's office, which handles more serious crimes, began reviewing the case after police sought to “ensure appropriate charges are considered.” The county prosecutor's office said Friday no decision has been made in Rice’s case.
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