As the Ravens began their season, just two months ago, all anyone could talk about was Ray Rice.

But in the NFL, next week's game always looms large, and history becomes ancient awfully quickly, an advantage for the league in this case. Ravens players seemed almost surprised to be asked last week about their former teammate, who's about to re-enter the headlines as he appeals his indefinite suspension from the NFL Wednesday and Thursday in New York.

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"That's over with. You might be the first person to ask me that since last time I was at Walmart," said wide receiver Torrey Smith, one of Rice's closest friends on the team. "That's something that happened. As far as the team and the organization, obviously everyone has kind of moved on."

Not everything is the same. Since the video emerged of the star running back striking his then-fiancee Janay Palmer in an elevator, domestic violence holds a more prominent place in public discourse than at any time in recent memory. Groups dedicated to protecting abused women continue to receive more calls for help and more inquiries from companies hoping to promote change. Every NFL broadcast features a commercial with star players saying it's no longer tolerable to sweep the issue under the table.

Ravens officials have had to deal with the NFL-sanctioned investigation into their handling of the incident, and team president Dick Cass and general manager Ozzie Newsome are expected to testify in this week's appeal hearing before former U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones. Coach John Harbaugh has faced questions about Rice at a number of news conferences throughout the season.

But as Rice's appeal nears, the furor he created has begun to taper off.

Rice has granted no interviews and remained out of public view in recent weeks.

And most talk about the Ravens these days centers on football, with the 5-4 team in contention for a return to the playoffs despite falling into last place in the AFC North on Sunday night. Fans have continued to pack M&T Bank Stadium, sans the 7,000 Rice jerseys they discarded as part of a team-organized exchange.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who will testify at Rice's hearing, remains in power despite backlash over his handling of the Rice incident. He governs a league that seems more popular than ever, based on buoyant television ratings.

'It has opened a lot of eyes'

While the NFL has managed to get past the rash of negative headlines, the Rice case has shined a light on the issue of domestic violence.

It has inspired new domestic violence legislation in New Jersey, where Rice struck his now-wife and ultimately avoided trial on assault charges by entering a pre-trial intervention program.

"If I could change history, I would make it so this incident never happened," said Ruth Glenn, executive director of the non-profit National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "But it has opened a lot of eyes, and brought an awareness that people who have worked on this issue for a long time have never seen."

Glenn gave 35 interviews in one three-day stretch shortly after TMZ posted the Rice video. The affiliated National Domestic Violence Hotline experienced an 80-percent increase in calls over the ensuing few weeks. Even now, as the reaction tapers off, Glenn receives 2-4 calls or emails a day from women seeking help, something that didn't happen before the Rice story exploded.

She said she's also heard from several large companies, seeking help with policies or training programs that might help them avoid the mistakes the NFL made in handling the Rice matter.

At House of Ruth Maryland, women have come for help specifically because the Rice story made them realize "maybe what I'm going through isn't normal," said executive director Sandi Timmins.

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But the reaction to the story is complex, she cautioned. Other abuse victims have likely observed the impact on Rice's family — from lost income to unwanted attention — and seen reasons not to leave dangerous situations, Timmins said.

Meanwhile, Timmins has remained impressed with the Ravens' commitment to a three-year partnership with her organization, announced shortly before the team released Rice.

House of Ruth staffers have conducted an initial wave of training sessions for Ravens employees and operated a booth at the team's "Purple Evening" event for female fans. On Monday, Cass and defensive lineman Chris Canty appeared at a fundraiser for House of Ruth Maryland.

"I would say they have embraced our message," Timmins said.

As much criticism as Goodell and the NFL took for handing Rice an initial two-game suspension and for failing to obtain the video of him striking Palmer, the league has not lost any major sponsors or seen its all-important television ratings affected. In fact, NFL games have been the top-rated programs every week throughout the fall television season.

The league responded to the Rice mess sluggishly but ultimately did enough so its customers could remain comfortable watching a product they love, said Irwin P. Raij, a national sports attorney for Foley & Lardner LLP, who has helped negotiate licensing and sponsorship deals for professional teams and leagues.

"They've begun to get their arms around the issue, and that has made it easier for sponsor and fans to stick around," Raij said. "We continue to hear disappointment over their policies related to these issues. There is a level of concern. But at the same time, we haven't seen a major drop in investment."

The NFL ultimately announced harsher punishments for players who commit domestic violence, including possible lifetime bans for repeat offenders, and the league promised new training initiatives for every team. The Ravens had already announced their partnership with House of Ruth Maryland before the league unveiled its plans.

Teams have placed stars such as Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson on the league's inactive list rather than allow them to play as they face legal proceedings for abuse charges.

"I think we have seen an evolution in the behavior and actions of the league," Raij said. "And that's important, because even though we see a great fan loyalty to the league, it's not a blind loyalty. If the adjustments aren't real, the repercussions could be quite significant."

'I'm not as enraged'

In Baltimore, there's little evidence the Ravens' handling of the Rice case — for which owner Steve Bisciotti apologized to fans and sponsors — has diminished loyalty to the team. Several fans said they were initially outraged but have cooled off over the last seven weeks, even toward Rice himself.

"I'm not as enraged as I was when I first saw the video," said Stephen Puopolo of Edgewood. "I believe he should be given a second chance. However, I don't want him representing Baltimore anymore."

Rice has kept a low profile since the Ravens released him. The next weekend, he attended a football game at his alma mater, New Rochelle High School, with his wife and daughter. He and Janay have continued to express interest in helping House of Ruth Maryland, Timmins said.

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But Rice hasn't granted any substantial interviews or commented on the appeal he filed to his NFL suspension or the grievance he filed against the Ravens to recoup as much as $3.52 million in salary. He could not be reached for comment through his publicist, Deb Poquette, or his attorney for the upcoming appeal, Peter Ginsberg. Poquette said Rice is planning to remain quiet in advance of the hearing, which will be held at Jones' Manhattan law office and follow a similar format to a courtroom trial.

Smith remains in touch with his former teammate. "Personally, that's still my friend," the Ravens receiver said. "Janay [Rice] is still my friend. I still talk to them. We still see them."

But Rice's name is not often uttered around the team's training complex in Owings Mills. The NFL's eternal mantra is "next man up," a nod to the reality that the next season-altering injury is usually just a week away. With every misfortune comes an opportunity for someone else, and in this case, the soft-spoken, diminutive Justin Forsett has seized his chance as the Ravens' top running back and become the NFL's fifth-leading rusher.

It's a remarkable turn of events for a player who had started just seven games in six previous seasons and readily says he was down to his last NFL chance.

So the Ravens move ahead with Forsett as their chief runner and a solid shot at the playoffs despite Sunday night's 43-23 loss to the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, the Rice firestorm feels strangely long ago.

"I would say it does feel like it's been a pretty good amount of time that's passed since all that's kind of come over us, and I think we've done a good job moving on," quarterback Joe Flacco said. "And the fact that we've won five games in that time has helped us a little bit."

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