"I think they're going too far with Ray Rice."
So said a civil servant I know only in passing, making small talk the other day. No, it is not the majority opinion, but neither is the guy alone. Last week, USA Today quoted women fans who pointedly support Rice, the NFL star dropped by the Baltimore Ravens and indefinitely suspended by the league this month for a February incident in which he cold-cocked his then-fiancee (now wife) Janay Palmer.
"I've met the guy," said one. "He's such a sweet guy."
"I'm supporting him all the way around," said another woman, herself a survivor of domestic abuse. "I think he's an awesome guy."
Some in the jock-ocracy have also stood up for Rice. NBA star Paul George defended him in a series of tweets for which he later apologized. ESPN's Stephen A. Smith made a confused and confusing statement in which, while condemning men who hit women, he also warned against women who "provoke" abuse. He was briefly suspended and apologized. Boxer Floyd Mayweather criticized the NFL for upping Mr. Rice's penalty -- a two-game suspension became an indefinite one -- after video of the brutal blow surfaced. "I think there's a lot worse things that go on in other people's households," he said. Mayweather, who has been accused of abuse by multiple women and drew a 90-day sentence in 2012, later apologized.
So fine, let's say this since it seems to need saying:
There is no defense for what Rice did. None. Zip, zilch, zero. Nothing mitigates it, nothing softens it, nothing makes it less than awful.
Nor will you find sympathy here for the severity of the punishment. Indefinite suspension? Yeah, right. This is America, land of redemption, forgiveness and second acts. Tiger Woods came back. Bill Clinton came back. Martha Stewart, Hugh Grant and Paula Deen came back. Heck, Michael Vick came back. If he keeps his nose clean, Mr. Rice will come back too, likely by next season or even sooner if he wins an appeal.
Let him use his time off to think about who he is, what he did and where it has led him. And let certain of his fans use the time to ponder their reflexive need to excuse him. And to ask themselves: If the offender here wasn't a football star, if it was Jerry at the water cooler or Pablo in the next cubicle and the evidence were this damning, would they be so eager to rationalize what he did?
Allow me a confession. Back when Lakers star Kobe Bryant was accused of rape, I wrote a column whose lead still gives me heartburn 11 years later: "No way in h--l," it read.
I said that because I was not ready to believe a guy I rooted for, a guy who played for my hometown team, a guy I "knew" though I have never met him, could do such a thing. What kind of emotional purgatory would that be? How do you root for a guy and loathe him, too?
I still don't think Mr. Bryant committed rape, though my doubt now is based less on any illusions about character than on forensic evidence. But I also don't think my judgment on the matter is particularly to be trusted. And that's the point.
We are a celebrity-besotted people who too routinely conflate fame with worth, giving the talented, the beautiful and the well known benefit of the doubt we do not extend to the untalented, the unlovely and the unknown.
Now we're supposed to feel sorry for a man who apparently will not be prosecuted for assault and battery, but is being belatedly punished under the morals clause of a professional services contract he presumably signed knowingly and on the advice of his attorney? No.
Because he is famous, some people believe they are "going too far with Ray Rice." Actually, because he is famous, it took them seven months to go just barely far enough.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His email is email@example.com.