We’ve covered Ray Rice’s domestic violence incident for the past few months — especially since last Thursday when his two-game suspension was announced — and every step of the way it seemed like Rice, the Baltimore Ravens, and the NFL were unprepared for the onslaught of backlash that transpired on this site, and everywhere else. While the persistent tone-deafness was inexcusable, it’s not surprising that everybody involved thought it would eventually be swept under the rug.
To illustrate that point, as Doug Gottlieb pointed out Thursday, we’ve said much less about Greg Hardy as the Rice situation has played out. Hardy, a fifth year defensive end for the Carolina Panthers, had 15 sacks and made the Pro Bowl last year. He signed the team’s franchise tender this past March and was slated to make $13.1 million this season. He was arrested this past May for assaulting his girlfriend, and allegedly throwing her onto a couch covered with an arsenal of assault weapons.
On July 15th, he was convicted. As the AP documented:
A County Judge gave Hardy 18 months’ probation and a suspended 60-day jail sentence. Hardy denied the allegations, and his attorney is appealing for a jury trial (which won’t take place until after this upcoming season). As noted by ESPN’s David Newton, the only public comments that Hardy’s given on the matter since the judge’s conviction is that he “[hates having] distracted [his] team” and declined further elaboration.
Greg Hardy was perhaps a first round talent in 2010, but he slipped to the sixth round of the Draft because of a combination of injury and character concerns. While the Charlotte Observer notes that his official rap sheet carried little more serious than speeding tickets and other minor driving offenses before this arrest, the newspaper dug up past scrutiny:
There was a little bit of national attention on Hardy when he was arrested, convicted, and gave the trite “distraction” soundbite, but it’s largely been straight news reportage and aggregation rather than an endless blitz of thinkpieces like there’s been with Ray Rice. (Our site has not been immune to this disparity.) Why?
As far as I can discern, there are three major reasons why Ray Rice elicited so much coverage: The video, his recognizance, and the blatantly light punishment in respect to the previous two explanations and the way in which other NFL players have been punished for less severe offenses.
The video: As we’ll detail later, domestic violence in football and other sports is not new, and there are copious examples. But has there ever been video like the one TMZ released in May that documented the immediate aftermath in which Ray Rice was seen dragging his unconscious (now) wife out of an elevator? That imagery was in everybody’s mind when the Ravens staged an awkward press conference, when the NFL announced its punishment, and when Goodell sacrificed an underling to attempt to justify the unjustifiable to the masses.
Rice’s fame: If there were an NFL stat akin to basketball’s “win shares”, it would have pegged Greg Hardy as a much more valuable player than Ray Rice last season. Some of that is in the preliminary stages (it’s hard to tease out teammate contributions), and Advanced NFL Stats had Ray Rice with a negative Win Probability Added (WPA) last year, 82nd out of 84 running backs. (and yes, some of this was offensive line issues). Greg Hardy was 8th best among defensive ends, with a +1.7 WPA.
Even setting aside those advanced measures, Hardy was a pro bowler in 2013. Rice averaged 3.1 yards per carry.
Nevertheless, Rice was the feature back on a recent Super Bowl champion and is a household name because of his longstanding status as a fantasy football player. At this point, fantasy is at the forefront of how so many fans consume the sport, and Rice was a consensus top-tier pick from 2010-2013.
The light punishment: It’s essentially universally agreed upon that the NFL’s suspension of Rice was too light. Marijuana and other recreational drug users are subject to eventual four-game and full-year suspensions under the substance-abuse policy. While these numbers are collectively bargained, and different from the Commissioner’s Personal Conduct Policy, they should still serve as something of a compass for severity of discipline.
Our site’s Jason Lisk detailed all of the punishments Roger Goodell has doled out during his tenure as Commissioner, and there are two suspensions that are especially curious in light of Rice’s. Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for six games (later reduced to four) after he was accused of sexual assault, but not arrested or charged with the crime. Terrelle Pryor received a five-game suspension for “deliberate manipulation of our eligibility rules” when he entered the supplemental draft rather than face the same punishment from the NCAA for having the gall to exchange personal memorabilia for tattoos in Columbus. That’s obviously silly.
Deadspin’s Greg Howard laid out a thorough and compelling thesis that the NFL and the Ravens believed Ray Rice’s wife to be to blame for getting beaten up. Given the institutional tact taken between mid-May and Rice’s apology yesterday, it’s difficult to disagree. However, that alone does not necessarily explain the light punishment. The NFL has a history of going light on domestic abuse.
Earlier this month, Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman condemned NFL players for not speaking up against domestic violence in the cases of Greg Hardy, Ray Rice, and others:
In 1995, the Rams drafted Lawrence Phillips sixth overall despite this incident with his girlfriend at Nebraska:
To be fair, Nebraska and the Rams did receive harsh national criticism for enabling the running back to play. Phillips would also have stops with the Dolphins and 49ers in his career; after he was out of the league, he was arrested for driving his car into three teenagers after a pick-up football dispute. At that time, he was also wanted by police for another domestic violence incident.
In 2004, Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman received a three-game suspension after he deliberately rammed his Hummer into the car his wife was driving in which their infant son was a passenger. Pittman was a repeat offender; he had previously received a one-game suspension for domestic violence.
In 2005, Titans cornerback Samari Rolle was arrested after a Valentine’s Day incident in which his wife had to go to the hospital to treat a cut over her eye. Rolle was released by Tennessee, and signed by … the Ravens. After getting probation, Rolle was fined one game check, but not suspended by the league.
“Samari has taken full responsibility for the offseason incident,” said then-Baltimore coach Brian Billick. “I know he’s got to feel good that it’s behind him. We feel good the league proceeded in the normal way it does, very specific, judicious about it. The important thing is he takes responsibility for his actions, and it’s not going to cost us.”
The public outcry over a non-suspension in Baltimore a decade ago was fairly non-existent. The cut over the eye was not televised, and Rolle, like Hardy, was not a fantasy football star or notable to the casual fan. It was also a century ago in internet years.
So, while it’s disheartening that the NFL, its organizations, and its players do not take a stronger stand against domestic violence, it shouldn’t necessarily have been surprising. And it’s not just football; Iron Mike Gallego recently detailed the collective tolerance for serial woman beater Floyd Mayweather at Deadspin. Earlier this week, SB Nation’s Mike Bates made the case that the MLB has an even worse track record on the subject than the NFL.
And it’s not just sports. James Brown’s biopic opens today; the movie will not shy away from the soul legend’s chronic abusiveness, but that probably isn’t something most of his fans will consider when they decide whether to go see it. Chris Brown doesn’t seem to have trouble getting work. In America, we compartmentalize our celebrities’ personal transgressions, provided they are entertaining enough and they don’t commit murder.
With regards to Ray Rice, the NFL was clearly caught off-guard by the seismic shift in our perceptions. As of yet, it’s unclear whether the outrage of this past week represents a blip, or the beginning of a trend.