Ray Rice just joined the unemployment line, but not for what he did or didn’t do on the field as a member of the Baltimore Ravens. The star NFL running back broke the law, and then embarrassed the league and his team, which fired him months after the event became known. The league’s handling of the Rice controversy has its parallels to the current trend in universities and colleges of replacing or supplementing the court system to provide a form of popular justice – and both show the need to step back and reconsider.
Let’s start at the beginning. Rice got arrested in Atlantic City this past February for committing an act of violence against his then-girlfriend and now-wife Janay, and was afterward indicted for third-degree aggravated assault. After pleading down and pledging to enter counseling and probation, the league suspended Rice for the first two games of the 2014 season, a punishment which was widely ridiculed for its leniency.
At nearly the same time, the Miami Dolphins fined and suspended cornerback Don Jones for tweeting out his disgust with a same-sex kiss shared by newly-drafted Michael Sam, who now plays on the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad. The Dolphins at first announced that Jones’ suspension would be “indefinite,” but later during training camp restored his playing status after sensitivity training. “Defensive players usually have to commit multiple helmet-to-helmet attacks on defenseless opponents,” I wrote at the time about the disproportional outrage over a couple of tweets, “to even get a time-limited suspension from the league.”
That was hardly the last embarrassment for the NFL. Each league suspension that followed, including a year-long suspension for the Cleveland Browns’ Josh Gordon for marijuana use, was compared to the Rice suspension to show the NFL’s lack of proportion and priorities. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell eventually agreed, informing owners in a letter last month that domestic-violence incidents would get much stiffer disciplinary action.
Unfortunately for Goodell, Rice’s domestic-violence incident came back to embarrass the league even further – and paint the NFL and the Ravens as dishonest hypocrites. Initially, the reason given for lenient treatment was that the incident was mutually violent, a case of an argument that just got out of hand. The Ravens put out a statement on Twitter in late May stating that “Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident.”
That’s where it stood until celebrity site TMZ got its hands on video of the actual assault and released it early Monday morning. The previous video published not long after Rice’s arrest showed only the aftermath outside of the casino elevator. The new TMZ video showed Rice punching his wife twice, with the second punch a knockout.
Suddenly, the case of Ray Rice got reopened in the court of public opinion, and that court handed down an instant verdict – not just on Rice, but on the Ravens and the NFL. The Ravens belatedly took down their May tweet with Janay’s statement, and later fired Rice. Goodell announced an “indefinite suspension” of the running back, which means no other team can employ him.
However, nothing in the case had actually changed except the public spin. Everyone, including the league and the team, knew Rice had assaulted Janay to the point of knocking her unconscious. For that matter, so did the grand jury that indicted him, and so did the prosecutors who allowed Rice to cut a deal based on his lack of prior criminal record.
As New York Times sports reporter Lynn Zinser quipped on Twitter, the message from the NFL seems to have been, “We were pretty much OK with Ray Rice clobbering his wife until you all watched it on video.”
This swing from extreme to extreme based on little more than public opinion raises serious questions about the league’s ability to deal with crime and punishment. It should also raise questions about why the league is dealing with crime and punishment in the first place, questions that also apply to Academia as well. In both cases, attempts to either supplement or supplant the court system have produced more injustice than the opposite.
Universities and colleges have come under increasing pressure to convict students in hearings about sexual harassment and assault committed on campus. Over the last several years, the Department of Justice has pressed these schools to prove that they are complying with Title IX equality-in-education requirements by punishing bad behavior that victimizes women, whether or not it rises to the level of a crime.
The Obama administration issued a controversial opinion in April 2011 that demands schools use a “preponderance of evidence” rather than “clear and convincing evidence” as a standard for adjudicating claims, including on criminal accusations such as rape. Schools have eliminated other protections for the accused that Americans have long expected in the criminal system, such as the right to cross-examination and full discovery of all evidence prior to the hearing, among others. The result has been a rush to judgment and the creation of kangaroo courts that ruin lives, even on rare occasions when the accused get cleared.
The NFL’s parallel system of justice, as with its academic cousin, responds to a much different set of incentives and lacks the checks and balances needed for these kinds of public accounting for criminal behavior. The NFL has a right to police its teams and players to be sure that bad behavior doesn’t impact the game, such as restrictions on gambling, performance-enhancing drugs, and flagrant fouls that can seriously injure other players.
However, Colts owner Jim Irsay’s six-game suspension for driving while intoxicated and Gordon’s year-long suspension for smoking marijuana (hardly a substance that’s likely to improve performance) has little to do with the game. The league’s escalating role as arbiter of criminal behavior has fed the public expectation for punishment, and the escalating potential for high-profile missteps.
Goodell and the Ravens wouldn’t have been embarrassed by the new TMZ video if the league left justice to the courts, nor would schools face mounting lawsuits if they made the same choice with allegations of criminal behavior. The NFL should police the game, and the police and courts should deal with criminal behavior.
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