September 9th, 2014

Billy Reed: from O.J. to Ray Rice

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Billy Reed

Executive Editor


Billy Reed: from O.J. to Ray Rice
Former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice / file photo from nfl.com

On this day exactly 20 years ago, prosecutors in the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial announced they would seek a sentence of life without parole, rather than the death penalty, if the former NFL running back were convicted of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend Ronald Goldman.

The trial was televised from gavel to gavel and became a national addiction. And when the jury finally voted Simpson not guilty in defiance of mountains of evidence to the contrary, shocked commentators said that at least the Simpson case had made the nation sensitive to the scourge of violence against women.

But it didn’t take, did it? After these two decades, violence against women — and children —  remains a national disgrace. And, sadly, the sports culture brims with examples of institutions that compound the crime by concocting cover-up schemes to protect their “brand” and star athletes accused of criminal behavior.

So now Ray Rice is the O.J. of today. He’s the Baltimore Ravens star who punched out his wife on an elevator in a New Jersey casino. Never mind that the severity of his crime doesn’t compare with the Simpson case. The issue is a culture in which athletes are allowed to engage in anti-social behavior simply because of their ability to generate victories and revenues.

Once the Rice case became public, the NFL rushed to judgment. It conducted a hasty “investigation” that concluded with commissioner Roger Goodell suspending Rice for two games. Anti-abuse groups were outraged that the penalty was so light. The nation’s fans shrugged and adjusted their Fantasy Football Leagues.

But then a website named TMZ released a video from the elevator’s security camera that showed Rice decking his companion and then standing over her, as if daring her to get up. At no point did he express remorse or try to comfort her. He was the very picture of a bully and a thug.

The outrage was so strong and widespread that the NFL and the Ravens went into damage-control overdrive. The Ravens fired Rice and the league suspended him indefinitely. But here’s the thing: Without the indisputable video evidence, Rice would have pretty much gotten away with it.

Everyone — the league, the team and the public — was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because of his star status. ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith suggested that some female victims were partly responsible for abuse because of the provocative way they dressed. For that bit of knuckle-headed wisdom, he got taken off the air for a week.

But that’s the thing where sports are involved. The desire to win trumps all, even when it comes to crime and justice. Fans in the media and out will go to extreme lengths to give athletes the benefit of the doubt. Consider the case of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, who won last year’s Heisman Trophy with rape allegations hanging over his head.

In the wake of the charges, a Tallahassee policeman advised the alleged victim that she might want to think about dropping the charges “because you know how big football is around here.” Many fans accused her of seducing Winston in order to profit from his celebrity and future earning power. The idea was to protect the brand, no matter what.

As fate would have it, the elevator video of Rice’s attack was released the same day the NCAA announced it was mitigating the penalties levied against Penn State because of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

This, of course, was the mother of all cover-ups. For years, there were whispers around Penn State that Sandusky, a top aide to the sainted coach Joe Paterno, had been sexually abusing boys right there on the campus. Paterno heard an eyewitness account from an assistant and discounted it. So did the athletic director and, eventually, the university president.

It was the cover-up, even more than Sandusky’s crimes, that caused the NCAA to slam Penn State with penalties of Biblical proportions. The NCAA wanted to send a message and it did. The idea was to use the Penn State case as a deterrent to universities that might be tempted to cover up felonies.

But this week the NCAA sent another message: OK, we were just kidding. The announcement that the university’s bowl ban was being lifted touched off a bizarre celebration on campus. Reveling students did everything but resurrect the statue of Paterno that had been put into storage in the wake of the scandal.

Only a cynic would note that the NCAA’s decision came the first year of the lucrative championship playoff and that Penn State might be good enough to make that lucrative, four-team event. Surely the NCAA wouldn’t sell out its values, would it?

Although Goodell has been quoted as saying that he did not know about the elevator security tape when he assessed Rice’s two-game suspension, that seems a stretch. Everyone knows that every casino has video cameras in elevators — and everywhere else, for that matter. If Rice’s attorney was able to obtain the tape — and he did — there’s no excuse for the NFL not to get it.

Rice’s victim added a new dimension to the drama yesterday by putting out an Instagram statement that defended her husband and attacked the media. This sort of behavior is not untypical of abuse victims. They see standing by their man as a noble thing. They also don’t want the paydays to stop coming. Whatever, don’t expect her to become the poster child for abused women anytime soon.

It doesn’t take a crusading prosecutor to connect the dots between O.J. and Ray Rice. But what are we going to do about it? When is our society, including the sports culture, going to get as serious about stamping out violence against women and children as Mothers Against Drunk Driving  did about punishing people who got behind the wheel of a vehicle while intoxicated?

In sports, the NCAA, the NFL and other umbrella organizations can adopt no-tolerance policies. In the entertainment world, corporations can stop producing movies, videos and songs that glorify violence against women. In our communities, we must offer legal protection and other incentives to convince women that they will not be stigmatized or punished if they report abuse.

And isn’t it time that high-profile athletes began to step up, call out offenders, and make public-service announcements deploring violence against women and children? If ever there was a time for so-called “role models” to step up, it’s now.

Today many commentators are saying that the only positive about the Ray Rice case is that it will promote awareness of violence against women. Of course, that’s the same thing that was being said 20 years ago about the O.J. tragedy.

We can only hope that we will see more progress in the next 20 years than we did in the last 20. Violence against women and children is simply not acceptable. Period. End of story. 

 

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