If Ray Rice continues to be a story that won't go away, the National Football League and the Baltimore Ravens only have themselves to blame.
On Monday, Rice made his first major public appearance since being suspended two games for domestic assault, a mild punishment for which the league has received plenty of deserved criticism. As he jogged onto the field at M&T Bank Stadium, the crowd of Ravens fans gave the running back a standing ovation.
Many beat writers tweeted the reaction, but the news was also prominently featured on the front page of the Ravens' website, which became news in itself. If the NFL's response to the backlash has been characteristically tone-deaf, the Ravens managed to top that with a gushing post on fans embracing an embattled player without any explicit mention of the offense for which he's come under fire.
Ravens staff writer Ryan Mink noted that Rice's "hometown fans showed him a lot of love" despite the "national scrutiny" around his case. Rice showed "his fun-loving side" when he interacted with fans, and Mink pointed out, as any good NFL toady would, that "Rice jerseys sprinkled the crowd, worn by both males and females."
Clearly, the NFL doesn't have a woman problem, as evidenced by the fact that female Ravens fans remain as blindly loyal to Rice as male fans.
The Ravens' latest promotion of their star running back is part of a concerted effort by the team's PR staff to continue to "push" Rice in the wake of his domestic violence suspension. Head coach John Harbaugh started things off on a low note immediately after the punishment was announced, praising Rice as "a heckuva guy" and the NFL for teaching children that there are consequences to one's actions. (They're just far less severe if you happen to be a famous football player, kids.)
I'm not naive. I didn't expect the Ravens to come out with some vigorous condemnation of the player who dons the team's highest-selling jersey. This is an organization and a fanbase that managed to look past Ray Lewis's alleged involvement in a double-murder. Realistically, the onus for pointing out the egregious nature of Rice's offense, and the NFL's weak discipline amounting to a tacit approval, rests on sports reporters, and some have eagerly accepted that role.
But the sheer gall it takes to celebrate fans' adoration of a man who beat his fiancee and mostly got away with it indicates the larger problem: The NFL is too big to fail.
The league, and the Ravens, are so popular that they're daring you to criticize them. They've taking what should have and has been one of the largest public-relations disasters football has seen since the concussion scandal, packaged it with video and 250 fawning words disguised as journalism, and served it up on a platter to the fans.
And we, the fans, eat it up. Thank you, sir, may I have another? The league knows that no matter how many players beat their wives, no matter how many tax dollars it shelters, no matter how much kidney failure and traumatic brain injury it continues to overlook, we, the fans, will keep coming back, asking for more.
Surely, as noted, there has been much public outrage against Rice and the NFL, just as there has been against ESPN's Stephen A. Smith for his comments advising women not to "provoke" their own assault. Smith first tried clarifying his statements on Twitter, which only made things worse. Then, he apologized in an apparently pre-taped segment in the opening of Monday's episode of "First Take," calling the comments "the most egregious error of my career." When that wasn't enough, ESPN decided to suspend Smith from the network's television and radio properties for one week, effective Wednesday.
One week, for those of you who are counting, is essentially half the meager suspension given to Rice.
In no way should the offenses committed by the two men be conflated; the impact of verbal statements, as damaging as they may be in perpetuating one of the most prolific myths of domestic violence, doesn't hold a candle to the actual physical assault of a woman.
But the relative insignificance of the penalties to both men just demonstrate the omnipotence of the institutions responsible for disciplining them. Just as fans will continue to cheer Rice and buy his jersey, so, too, will viewers continue to watch "First Take," in all its loudmouth, reductionist glory. Nearly half a million people tune in to watch Smith take on Skip Bayless in shouting matches that never result in a more enlightened discourse, a fact ESPN touts gleefully. Embrace debate, indeed.
Of course, not every individual fan watches "First Take," and not everyone is guilty of the poor judgment it takes to celebrate a player such as Rice. But this isn't just about Ravens fans -- we're all culpable in this. We're all the lowest common denominator, and we're all part of the problem.
To paraphrase Malcolm Gladwell, watching men bash other men on a football field is not a morally neutral act. (Nor, really, is adding to the ratings of the idiocy on "First Take.") Calls to burn our pink jerseys and tear up our season tickets and turn off our televisions are all well and good, but they're about as meaningless as a two-game or one-week suspension until we realize that the NFL and ESPN are simply monsters that we created.
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