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Did NFL fumble on player Rice’s punishment for domestic violence?

August 1, 2014 at 6:46 PM EDT
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has defended the two-game punishment of Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice for domestic abuse. The case, and its aftermath, have sparked a firestorm of public criticism that the penalty was too lenient. Jeffrey Brown talks to Christine Brennan of USA Today/ABC News about the pushback, and how the case fits into larger problems for the sport.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: As the National Football League gets set to kick off its preseason this weekend, a domestic abuse case and the league’s response to it has cast a dark cloud over the playing field.

Jeffrey Brown has our story.

RAY RICE, Running Back, Baltimore Ravens: I let so many people down because of 30 seconds of my life that, you know, I know I can’t take back.

JEFFREY BROWN: Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice spoke publicly yesterday, the first time since receiving a two-game suspension and fine.  He was arrested in February for domestic violence against his then-fiancée, now wife, Janay Palmer. A TMZ Sports video showed him dragging her, unconscious, out of an elevator.

RAY RICE: That night, you know, I just replay over and over in my head. You know, that’s not me. My actions were inexcusable. And, you know, that’s something I have to live for the rest of — have to live with the rest of my life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Rice, one of the NFL’s leading rushers, has entered a pretrial intervention program. When he completes it, criminal charges against him could be dropped.

The case and its aftermath set off a firestorm of public criticism that the league’s punishment was too lenient. But, today, commissioner Roger Goodell defended his decision. He spoke at the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

ROGER GOODELL, Commissioner, National Football League: I think what’s important here is that Ray has taken responsibility. He’s been accountable for his actions. He recognizes he made a horrible mistake that is unacceptable, by his standards, by our standards, and he’s got to work to reestablish himself.

JEFFREY BROWN: Several members of the media also took heat for their coverage of the situation. ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith sparked an uproar when he said women shouldn’t — quote — “do anything to provoke wrong action.”

For his part, without specifics, Rice said yesterday he plans to help fight domestic violence in the future.

Sportswriter and columnist Christine Brennan of USA Today and ABC News has been covering this story and joins me now.

Welcome, Christine.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, USA Today/ABC News: Thank you, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: First of all, as so often, this is about the incident and then the response, right? Fill in the blanks a little bit for those not following this.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Yes, well, of course, you have this terrible incident and the video, which I think really brought it home to so many people, Ray Rice, the star running back for the Baltimore Ravens, and then the announcement of the suspension, two games, a two-game suspension.

There have been — there was a five-game suspension once for a player for stomping on someone. There have been much longer suspensions for many, many other things.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, for performance-enhancing drugs. I was reading, even for a first case, four games.


JEFFREY BROWN: That sort of riled people up.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Well, exactly, that two games was — it seems almost like nothing.

And it was three paychecks, so $529,000, but two games. And that occurred about a week ago, almost a week — actually more than a week ago, Jeff, and literally the conversation still has not stopped. And so this torrent of criticism of the National Football League and the commissioner, I actually found incredibly heartening.

As bad as that decision was, as lenient, as much as the NFL literally fumbled that decision, I think the reaction has been so — it’s been wonderful to see how people reacted against the NFL.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us a little more about Ray Rice, I mean, before all this. He is a very talented football player.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Oh, absolutely.

And his record, as everyone has said, has been clean. And so that may well have gone into the calculation. In fact, it did, when the commissioner, Roger Goodell, said there have been no previous incidents. So, two games was what he felt was appropriate.

My response to that and so many people’s response is, of course, that doesn’t matter. An abuser is an abuser. And when you see what he did and how he’s dragging the listless body of his soon-to-be-wife out of the elevator, whether he’s Boy Scout to that point or not, it seems like everything…

JEFFREY BROWN: You saw his statement yesterday?


JEFFREY BROWN: And what did you take from that?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: It was a start to me.

I think that’s the best way to describe it, a young man clearly out of his element, of course, all of his own doing, all self-induced. No sympathy at all. But what I would have liked to see is much more a concrete statement of specifically what he wants to do, money, time, donations. Looking right in the camera, Jeff, and saying to men like him who have abused women that we have got to stop this.

Obviously, he wasn’t up to that. Let’s hope that he can start to take ownership of this and lead the way, as the NFL hopefully does a lot more on this issue.

JEFFREY BROWN: This, of course, is a very violent sport, and has had a lot of different incidents along — through the years.

Do you see this as fitting in to some larger problem for the sport or not — for the sport not knowing quite how to deal with responding to something like this?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: I actually think, yes, the violence is there, but it seems to me the NFL, being the biggest lead in our country, the most popular by far, long since blew by baseball on that, that this is their opportunity to be a leader in this.

They have so many young men, obviously, in the league. And why not look at this as the opening to putting its considerable might and effort behind a cause that is so important, an issue that is so important in this country?

So I actually look at it as an opportunity. If people said, oh, it’s a violent sport, well, that’s an excuse, of course, and I think the NFL should be beyond allowing those kinds of excuses to exist.

JEFFREY BROWN: And let me ask you briefly, as you said, it is most popular sport. The season is going to start pretty soon. Do fans care? Is the league looking at this as potentially damaging?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: I have never seen a reaction to something go on this long and be this strong.

And I think that’s great, in the sense that I think the decision was wrong. So it will carry over certainly into games where the Ravens are playing on the road. I’m sure that Ray Rice is going to hear.

On the other hand, the Ravens fans were cheering him when they saw him pop up on the video board the other day. So fans are fans, and they cheer for the jersey. Let’s hope that a sane approach comes here, Jeff, where people say, you know what, if this man moved down the street from me, I would be horrified to find out what he did.

And let’s hope that fans really react in a negative way towards him, not because you want to take it out more on him, but the sense that this is so wrong, and the NFL is getting the answer here that this is just absolutely unacceptable in 2014.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Christine Brennan, thank you so much.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Thank you very much, Jeff.