Nearly 10 months have passed since Ray Rice landed a roundhouse left to the head of his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer — a blow that left her unconscious, ended his Ravens career and saddled his former team with a crisis it still can't shake.
The former star and his wife are taking well-publicized steps to move forward. But the team has struggled to mount a similar rebound as a season of missteps grinds on.
Fallout from the February incident in Atlantic City — and from the response of team officials — has cast a shadow over the season, and Thursday's suspension of another star player, Haloti Ngata, could further jeopardize the team's playoff chances. Meanwhile, an investigation into the league's handling of the case and an arbitration case over Rice's dismissal from the Ravens are continuing.
Controversy flared again last week as Rice and his wife appeared on the "Today" show, days after an arbitrator overturned the running back's indefinite suspension by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Janay Rice said team officials suggested that she issue the apology she made at a May 23 news conference. Team officials publicly rebutted her account, saying they simply provided talking points to her husband.
But that explanation, and the wording of the talking points, sparked more criticism of the Ravens. Leaders of some women's groups saw the rebuke as part of a continuing pattern by team officials of attacking Janay Rice while trying to protect the images of the player and team.
"[Owner] Steve Bisciotti and his men ... just look like bullies," said Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women.
Ravens spokesman Kevin Byrne said Friday that the team has acknowledged that it was not prepared for the firestorm. "Like many people, we did not have enough understanding of partner abuse, how to recognize it, and handle it," he wrote in a written response to questions. "We have more understanding now and are committed to learning more."
The rebuttal to Janay Rice's statement was not an attack, Byrne added. "It should never be considered an attack or disrespect to correct a falsehood or inaccurate statement. We do not know what others said to Janay, if Janay saw what we prepared for Ray or saw other talking points from someone else."
One of the talking points the Ravens provided to Ray Rice for the May news conference stated: "We Can Do Something Going Forward By Admitting Our Mistakes and Making Sure We Serve as an Example of Doing the Right Things."
To O'Neill and others, that sounds like suggesting an apology.
"They held Ray and Janay out as a couple — a unit," O'Neill said. "In that context, the talking points create the narrative the Ravens wanted the couple, as a unit, to convey to the public.Of course Janay would consider the talking points to be her script as well as Ray's."
The Ravens were also criticized for a Twitter posting: "Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident." The tweet was later deleted.
Initial reports of the incident — and the NFL's original two-game suspension for Rice —led to numerous calls for Goodell to resign. He began an overhaul of the league's personal conduct policies, including those dealing with domestic violence.
Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Rice received pretrial intervention that allows his aggravated-assault charge to be dropped if he takes anger-management classes. An assault charge initially filed against Janay Rice was dropped by authorities.
Yet critics say the team repeatedly minimized Rice's role in the assault — until the telltale video surfaced Sept. 8. That viral video — which has been viewed 10.5 million times on YouTube — prompted the Ravens to release him and led the NFL to issue an indefinite ban.
Team officials continued to use language that either rehashed Janay Rice's criminal charges or made little mention of her at all.
"The Ravens talked about being a family, but there was no evidence there was any support given to Janay," said Phyllis Sharps, associate dean for community and global programs at the Johns Hopkins University. "It was all about protecting the brand and the image."
A day after the two-game suspension was issued, Byrne wrote an online column on the Ravens' website titled: "I like Ray Rice." It characterized the assault as "the incident with his now wife Janay." Byrne also quoted Bisciotti as saying "how sad we all are that he tarnished his image."
Coach John Harbaugh said he expected Rice to return after his suspension.
"We were wrong," Byrne wrote in his statement Friday, adding that the column was meant to deliver a behind-the-scenes look at what was happening. "We should have expressed our support of Janay as well."
Such omissions by team officials — as well as parsing whether Rice used an open hand or a fist, or publicly mentioning her intoxication and aggression before she was hit — are not a surprise to domestic violence experts.
"For those who work in the field, the fact that Ray said he hit her with an open or closed hand is not the point," said Oliver Williams, director of the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community based at the University of Minnesota. " What matters is, he hit her, and a slap or a punch does not make it better."
Williams said the language used by team officials amid the controversy shows that the organization wanted to frame the assault to "benefit Ray Rice for a possible return."
Experts said the team had an obligation to protect Janay Rice, even if she wanted to take on some responsibility for what happened in the elevator. That's a common response from some victims, said Michaele Cohen, executive director of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence.
"They feel they somehow instigated or caused the incident," Cohen said. "We don't believe anything anyone does rationalizes that kind of behavior."
Team officials "were minimizing it," Cohen said. "Protecting his image, their image. That was pretty apparent."
Critics also highlight Bisciotti's comments at a Sept. 22 news conference held to respond to an ESPN report that the team sought a minimal punishment for its player despite knowing the severity of the assault.
When Bisciotti was asked if any women were involved in discussions about handling the Rice incident, he replied with a laugh: "No. We don't have a female president or [general manager] or coach, so to that extent, no. If I can get Kevin [Byrne] out someday, maybe we'll consider replacing him with a female."
Marty Conway, who teaches sports management at Georgetown University, said that statement captured the essence of the team's attitude.
"That was the one crystallizing moment that says: 'This is why everything up to this point has occurred the way it did,'" said Conway, a former vice president of marketing with the Orioles. "It just indicated a basic lack of understanding of the important role of having women in an organization."
Byrne disagreed, saying that Bisciotti "expressed remorse over the entire situation, regret over our not handling it better, and his personal support of Janay and other victims of partner abuse."
In a September interview, Bisciotti expressed regret about the handling of the May news conference.
"In hindsight, I would have never let Janay [sit] up there," he said. "What she then said was that she takes some responsibility, which everything we know, a lot of battered women take responsibility for their roles in this thing. I regret that we ever let him do that in our facility."
Ravens officials say players are now concentrating on the next game, Sunday against the Miami Dolphins.
But experts say such high-profile incidents distract from that focus.
"Any time you're not thinking about your job, there's a lack of productivity" by the athletes, Conway said.
Byrne's statement noted the team's work with a local shelter for abused women. "We are in a partnership with the House of Ruth that includes education for everyone who works for the Ravens."
The team gave the nonprofit $200,000 this year and has pledged another $400,000 over the next two years, said House of Ruth Executive Director Sandi Timmins.
The team has held four seminars for employees on domestic abuse — two for players and two for staff. One was hosted by the House of Ruth, the NFL and Joe Ehrmann, a former Baltimore Colt who runs an organization that teaches players about respect for women. The team also hosted a Nov. 3 fundraiser for a House of Ruth initiative and has developed a public service announcement featuring wide receiver Torrey Smith.
Timmins said the Ravens are committed to trying to change the organization as well as the community, by getting other companies and organizations involved in educating men about how to show respect for women.
"We need to focus on the entire community if we're going to make change," she said.
Doing so is critical if the team and the league want to continue to appeal to women, a growing segment of their fan base.
"What's good for women is good for business," Conway said. "I don't know why the NFL and their teams haven't embraced that long ago."