Rice needs to be apologetic, forthcoming to rebuild image

As former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice tries to rehabilitate an image sullied by domestic violence — a crucial step in restarting his NFL career — branding experts and sports analysts say he faces a straightforward, yet imposing task: convincing the world that he's a changed man.

Rice, whose interview with the "Today" show's Matt Lauer airs Monday and Tuesday, is likely to confront an American public wary of another professional athlete looking to make amends. The high-profile interview follows his wife's first-person account, which was released by ESPN on Friday afternoon, immediately after Rice won an appeal of his indefinite suspension from the NFL.


The Rices' interviews with NBC and ESPN are the "first and second steps" toward rebuilding his image, said Marty Conway, a former vice president of marketing with the Orioles who teaches sports management at Georgetown University.

"The third is to be as readily available and forthcoming as possible. There should be other interviews, sit-downs with him and his wife and his family," Conway said. So long as he's forthcoming, Rice's talent should allow him to rebound from the scandal, he said.


Rice is not the first celebrity to turn to morning television shows for post-scandal interviews. Celebrity chef Paula Deenspoke with Lauer in September, after being fired from the Food Network last year amid accusations of racism. Actress Reese Witherspoon went on Good Morning America last year after being charged with disorderly conduct.

Rice cleared a major legal obstacle Friday, when a former federal judge ruled that his indefinite suspension was improperly imposed by the league. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who had initially set a two-game suspension for the February incident, toughened the penalty Sept. 8, just hours after a website posted a video of Rice hitting his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, in an elevator at a Atlantic City, N.J., casino.

Former U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones, who had been named to arbitrate the appeal, said she was not persuaded that Rice had "lied to, or misled, the NFL" and called his indefinite suspension "an abuse of discretion." Her ruling means that Rice can be signed by any team; the Ravens released him on the same day the video surfaced.

Still, experts said Jones' decision isn't likely to immediately alter the public's perception of Rice, who can be seen on video dragging his unconscious fiancee from the elevator.


Howe Burch, president of Baltimore-based advertising agency TBC, thinks Rice has a good chance of winning back fans and re-establishing his football career. But he cautions, "I think it's going to be challenging for him to rehabilitate his image in the very near future. I think it will be a long-term rehabilitation."

Burch said that if he were advising Rice, he would suggest that the running back lie low and focus on being a good husband and father. Eventually, Rice could appeal to fans to remember him for his works in the community and not judge him based on one incident.

If done right, Burch said, such a strategy could work.

"It's amazing how tolerant people are. … Time has a way of healing wounds," Burch said. "There are some people who will never forgive him. There are others who, in due time, would forgive him."

Burch noted that golfer Tiger Woods, who admitted in 2009 to cheating on his wife, is now cheered by female fans at tournaments. Professional football players who have made comebacks include quarterback Michael Vick, who was imprisoned for his role in a dogfighting ring, and former Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in connection with two fatal stabbings in 2000.

Experts say Rice is likely to join the list of pro athletes whose talent has carried them past scandals. And some teams will look past the incident if they are convinced he can help them win games — and generate financial benefits in the high-stakes world of pro football.

"If he can come out and start scoring for a team, everybody will forget," said Lisa Delpy Neirotti, an associate professor of sports management at George Washington University.

Teams in the NFL and other pro sports leagues have often gambled on players with troubled pasts, and for the most part, fans haven't minded, she said. Though animal lovers criticized the Philadelphia Eagles after they signed Vick, the team's image did not suffer, she said.

Conway said Rice could take a page from the playbook of Vick, who did his first interview upon release with "60 Minutes."

"Michael Vick did everything he possibly could," Conway said of the quarterback, who's now with the New York Jets. "He served his time and when he came back he was very forthcoming. He really looked and sounded like he had been a changed person. There has to be some authenticity and transparency to it."

Domestic violence prevention advocates, meanwhile, don't expect Friday's ruling to lessen the attention their cause has gained in the aftermath of the Rice video's release. Kim Gandy, president of the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence, doesn't expect fans to interpret the ruling as vindication for Rice.

"In my mind, this is more of a technicality," Gandy said. "The NFL, for a long time, didn't pay a lot of attention to domestic violence, whether it was because of a lack of understanding or simply that it wasn't important to their business model. That's changed now."

The House of Ruth Maryland, one of the state's largest domestic violence prevention groups, has said violence between intimate partners is an issue that transcends Rice. The nonprofit announced a partnership with the Ravens in the aftermath of the Rice incident. The team also made a $600,000 donation.

Teresa C. Younger, president of the Ms. Foundation for Women, wasn't as quick to accept Friday's ruling. The group bills itself as "the nation's leading voice on women's issues."

Younger said the NFL should work to recruit more women into roles as executives, coaches and referees.

"There is much talk of moving forward with bold and effective new policies and programs to change the culture of football," she said in a statement. "Now Commissioner Goodell and the NFL franchises must walk the walk."

For women who are already on the fence about supporting the NFL, the Rice assault and the league's reaction might be a tipping point to turn them away for good, said Marie Hardin, dean of the College of Communications at Penn State University.

"I do think there will be some erosion in any confidence that fans — particularly female fans — might have had in the NFL moving forward in a positive direction," she said.

Still, she said other factors, including the prevalence of injuries in the NFL and their own family interests, weigh more strongly for women in deciding whether to watch pro football.

"It's going to be something you're talking to your friends about, and you're upset about … but at the end of the day, this kind of thing isn't going to turn droves of fans away," Hardin said.


John Antil, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Delaware, said it would be very difficult for a team to justify signing Rice this season.


"I'm just not sure you could come up with a good enough story not to become another target for [criticism]," he said. "I'll bet there's a bunch of executives out there talking about this right now and how they could do it and not get a black eye."

As Rice waits, he could burnish his image by making himself a face for domestic violence prevention, Antil said, noting, "Offenders sometimes make the best spokespeople."

Even if Rice lands with another NFL team and wins back fans, his days as a star of TV and radio commercials are likely over, TBC's Burch and others said.

"I don't think there are many companies or brands that would align themselves with Ray because of what happened and because he's become the face of the domestic violence issue," he said. That means Rice's earning power will be significantly diminished.

Before his arrest, Rice had endorsements with companies including M&T Bank and Gillette. Baltimore fans will recall Rice in ads "raising the green flag" for M&T Bank, but he was replaced with Ravens coach John Harbaugh and others.

Neirotti said Los Angeles Lakers basketball star Kobe Bryant spent years trying to make up for lost sponsorships when news broke that a woman accused him of rape. The case was dropped when the woman refused to testify against him.

Melissa Jacobs, managing editor of The Football Girl and a former ESPN producer, said "short of Aaron Hernandez, almost every player has survived scandal." Hernandez, a former New England Patriots tight end, is awaiting trial on murder charges.

But Jacobs predicts that Rice will never fully overcome the scandal's damage, in part because of the visceral reaction when the video was made public.

"He personifies domestic violence in a way that transcends the NFL," she said. "It's a stigma he'll never escape, even if it's truly a one-time incident."

Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun