Ruling underscores NFL's incompetence in addressing players' off-the-field activity

Susan Reimer on the Ray Rice decision

Whatever you thought of the sickening sight of Ray Rice cold-cocking his girlfriend in the elevator, the Baltimore Ravens and the National Football League were just flailing in panic when they immediately cut him and banned him from the league in September.

Former U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones was right to reinstate the running back Friday. And not just because the league punished him twice — a two-game suspension and then, when the film from the elevator landed, an indefinite suspension, in a sports-league version of double jeopardy.


Her decision points up how uncomprehending and inept the NFL is when it tries to manage the private lives of its players.

Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson is benched for a game when he is charged with beating his 4-year-old son with a switch, and then suspended for the rest of the season when he does not show sufficient remorse for an act of discipline a chorus of athletes said had been the norm, though an unfortunate one, in their own childhoods.

Clearly, domestic relations is not anything the NFL is good at.

Rice will get a chance to play again — I am certain of it — though probably not this season. He is radioactive right now, but there are always second chances for good players at every level of sports. And it is right that he should get that chance.

Granted, this was not a court of law in which the legal principle of double jeopardy — tried twice for the same crime — applies. But we have an innate sense of fairness in this country that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell nicked when he suspended Rice indefinitely even after the Ravens cut him.

It was unconscionable that the Ravens pledged to support him in his rehabilitation one day and cut him loose from his job, his teammates and any other institutional supports, the next. Any social worker will tell you that's about the worst thing you can do to someone whose frustrations manifest themselves in violence.

Domestic abuse might indeed be a significant problem for NFL players and their wives and girlfriends, and all parties have to see that there is a road back or neither side will risk the consequences of reporting it or of seeking help.

Treating this kind of anger is infinitely more complex that dealing with a player who gets caught smoking a joint after practice. But the league seems to think you can simply punish both with some arbitrary number of games suspended.

I have believed from the beginning that the Ravens management team and Goodell had no idea of what domestic abuse looked like until they saw the tape of Rice punching Janay, who is now his wife. They were not simply insensitive. They were clueless.

"That the league did not realize the severity of the conduct without a visual record also speaks to their admitted failure in the past to sanction this type of conduct more severely," the judge wrote. In other words, they had to see it first.

Domestic violence — and the elaborate stories the victim and the abuser tell themselves and each other the morning after — is apparently not something that they have experienced behind the glass in their stadium boxes.

But their first instinct was to protect the brand — "protect the shield," as Goodell puts it — and their cynical self-interest was breathtaking. Any understanding the team and the league might have been due as employers trying to understand and deal with a sad and complex personnel situation was immediately forfeited.

In the months since, the NFL and the Ravens have done what a billion-dollar entertainment behemoth might do when it realizes that half its fan base — and the mothers of all its future employees — are at risk of alienation. They threw money at it.

The people at the House of Ruth, God bless them, will be getting big checks from the team, and the league has hired all sorts of smart and talented women to front its own attempt at redemption.


It might be argued that an institution as rich, powerful and influential as professional football has an important role in helping the public understand an issue like domestic violence — whether against a partner or a child. That these might be teachable moments for the biggest captive audience anywhere.

But it is almost painful to watch these men standing at the podium trying to make it right. Like watching the guy giving the toast to the bride and groom or the eulogy at the funeral who just keeps saying the wrong things — until you have to look away.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays on the op-ed page.