Just playing in the NFL doesn’t make you a real man

I used to read stories about sports writers becoming grizzled with age, turning on the athletes they once penned about fondly and becoming bitter curmudgeons after years of having to reconcile stars’ professional greatness with their personal shortcomings. I remember thinking that could never be me; I’ll never view sports in such a cynical way.

I’m no longer so certain.

While the first two weeks of the NFL season have had some great games, all has been overshadowed by the personal behavior of a pair of the league’s biggest stars. The spotlight has also justifiably shone brightly on commissioner Roger Goodell and the league fumbling its response to the Ray Rice fiasco. That preceded Adrian Peterson’s indictment for reckless or negligent injury to a child, administering what he felt was reasonable discipline to his 4-year-old son with a “switch.”

The Peterson case seems complex. Some believe his actions were flat out child abuse, others say the type of discipline he used had been crucial in their own upbringing and should be within a parent’s rights. We now know that Peterson had a similar incident with another one of his sons a year ago, sending him back to his mother with a head injury that occurred during a “whooping” in the car. Does the fact that Peterson has somewhere between five to seven children with multiple women play into the discussion? If these children were his full-time responsibility, rather than boys he sees during the summer, would that change the discipline we feel he can administer?

I don’t have a great answer. I was never disciplined physically, so I can’t speak to the short or long-term damage or benefits it has, but I can’t ever see myself physically disciplining my own child. It seems not only cruel, but a poorly constructed idea. Sure, the kid may not act out again, but is it because they know it’s wrong or because they’re afraid of a whooping? If the only consequence they fear is a physical beating, they may have no problem picking on someone smaller, while having trouble feeling empathy later in life.

In the Rice case, the initial video that showed Rice dragging his then fiance unconscious out of a casino elevator was released and seen months ago. The league used that and direct information from Ray and Janay Rice to determine that a two-game suspension was sufficient – a determination so ridiculous that new domestic violence suspension guidelines were swiftly put on the books. But once the second video surfaced of Ray smacking Janay and then unloading a left hook that knocked her into the wall and out cold, Goodell’s original leniency seemed all the more pathetic and the league responded with an indefinite suspension as the Ravens gave Rice his outright release.

Now I know people have been saying that the second video didn’t even need to be seen for everyone to know what happened in that elevator. I disagree. I needed to see it. Maybe not everyone else did, but it made me truly understand who we were dealing with. It wasn’t the ferocity of the punch, it wasn’t the way in which Janay fell to the floor, it was the ease with which Rice acted and the lack of remorse or anything resembling humanity he displayed immediately after. His body language showed me that this meant nothing to him. It showed me that there’s a good chance he had done it before and that he’d have no problem doing it again.

I don’t often like speaking in absolutes. There are variables in every facet of life that can and should change the way we respond to circumstances, physically or mentally. However I would say that hitting a woman is never justifiable. Never. There’s no give and take in that discussion. But had the Rice situation occurred the way he and Janay each initially claimed – a scenario where she was going after him in the elevator, he defended himself with one shove and she went into the wall – then my view on the entirety of Ray Rice wouldn’t be as harsh. This wouldn’t have defined him in my mind. He’s overcome a lot, been an underdog throughout his career and been the face of a national anti-bullying campaign, as well as a charitable figure in the Baltimore area.

He’s no longer those things. He’s a guy who stood in close quarters with a person incapable of matching him physically and didn’t give a second thought to knocking her unconscious. He could barely be bothered to move her motionless body, pawing at her with his feet before finally dragging her into a hallway. I may not be a body language expert, but I am a human being. At that moment, Ray Rice wasn’t.

Right now the NFL is known for hitting women and children. That’s obviously bad for the league, but maybe it can be helpful to society to be having these discussions out in the open.

David Simon can be reached at dsimon@thegardenisland.com.

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