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Will Rice firing set precedent for pro sport rules on domestic violence?

September 8, 2014 at 6:42 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: The NFL initially suspended Rice for two games, a punishment that drew widespread criticism for being too lenient. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell at first defended the suspension. But last month, he sent a letter to team owners saying he didn’t get it right. He set the future penalty for a first-time domestic violence offense at a six-game suspension. But that was before the new video emerged, which the league and the Ravens said they had never seen until today.

The Rice news came on the heels of another scandal in the National Basketball Association. On Sunday, Atlanta Hawks owner Bruce Levenson said he plans to sell the team because of racially charged remarks he made. He wrote in an internal e-mail two years ago that white men might not be comfortable in an arena with a high percentage of black fans.

About four months ago, the NBA banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling for life over racist comments he made. The team was later sold.

And we take a close look at these developments with Christine Brennan. She’s sportswriter and columnist for USA Today and ABC News. And Kevin Blackistone, he’s a sportswriter and commentator for ESPN. He’s also a professor of sports journalism at the University of Maryland.

And we welcome you both back to the program.

Christine Brennan, I will start with you. The video of Ray Rice… so disturbing. A lot of questions tonight about whether the football league has handled this properly. What are your thoughts?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, USA Today: Judy, this is a stunning turn of events, where all of a sudden Ray Rice is getting ready to return to the Ravens, and now he’s gone. He’s a pariah, history, that’s it.

A great ending, I think, to a terrible black eye for the league. The fact that it took so long to get to this point, the fact that it took a video to see this, I mean, in many ways, I think a lot of us are asking today, what did you think domestic violence looked like and why did it take this video to spur the league to action?

So they have gotten to the right place, but so many questions, as you said, about how they got here and also what does it mean for others who have either been accused of or actually found guilty of domestic abuse in the NFL who are still playing, and is it time for them to go as well?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kevin Blackistone, what was your reaction when you saw this, and how do you see how the league has handled it?

KEVIN BLACKISTONE, University of Maryland: Well, seeing the video this morning really just confirmed what I thought had happened in the first place.

And I didn’t really need this second video release to confirm my thoughts about what should happen to Ray Rice. You know, I think it’s interesting that — and this is the really sad commentary — that each year in this country, 1.3 million or 1.4 million women are victims of domestic violence, yet it takes a videotape before everyone gets exercised and apoplectic over what has happened and demands that something be done.

If there is any good to become — come of all of this, maybe it’s that. But even on Ray Rice’s own team, the Ravens, in the last few years, at least two players have been penalized by the league for domestic violence and they have gotten a game suspension or a two-game suspension.

And we know that, since the year 2000, there have been at least 77 players in the league who have been penalized for domestic violence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the Ravens, Christine Brennan, standing behind Ray Rice at the news — with him up until just today. He had a two-game suspension.

What about — there are questions raised now about the league, commissioner Goodell. He has walked back the decision, I guess, for two games. They’re saying six-game suspension for any other player found guilty of domestic violence. But is that the right approach?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Well, as of today, there are new rules to supersede that.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: And that, of course, as you know, Kevin, was less than two weeks old. So it went from two games to six games.

Now, I will say that the second offense, according to new rules as of a week-and-a-half ago, is that — it’s at least a year and even could be for life. So if Ray Rice is gone from the league, that could be the precursor to what this new policy is.

I think the bottom line is — I don’t know what you think, Kevin — is that we don’t know. This is unchartered territory. It shouldn’t have taken a video to get us to this point, but the fact the NFL is now at this point I think is a good conversation, clearly, to be having.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But how — Kevin Blackistone, how does one know whether something like this is truly going to change the approach and truly change the message that young players are hearing?

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: I think by the fact that, as Christine pointed out earlier, Ray Rice has now become a pariah in this league.

I e-mail a friend of mine who used to work in the general counsel office of the NFL and asked him what would happen to Ray Rice now that he was cut?  And he said that basically he would be out of a job, that though there are teams that could go out and pick him up, teams will be very, very unlikely to do so because of his reputation, which is now so, so tarnished.

And, remember, this was a young man out of Rutgers University who people spoke highly of up until this particular incident. So I think this is going to have some real ripple effects throughout college football, as young men try to put their lives together and become professional athletes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Kevin just cited, Christine, what, 77 instances over the last period.


JUDY WOODRUFF: What does that say about what our professional sports culture and especially football is saying to these young men?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Well, of course, it’s a violent game, and one would hope that they would understand the violence is on the field, not off.

But it’s also a problem in society. It’s not just the National Football League. It’s not just Major League Baseball, the NBA. It is our society. But the NFL can now be a leader. I think that’s a positive takeaway from this, Judy, is that the NFL is starting this conversation for all of us and all of us are having it today. And that’s a very good thing if we get to a better place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Quickly, I want to ask you both about the other news that we reported, the owner of the Atlanta Hawks, Bruce Levenson, announcing he’s selling the team, Kevin, after he released these remarks that he made.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, there are some who are saying, well, this is perfectly probate. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tweeted questions about how to attract more white fans.

Entirely reasonable?

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Well, coming on the heels of the Donald Sterling thing, everyone is quit to equate it to that. I won’t do that.

I mean, Donald Sterling was a serial housing discriminator in this country, the largest seen since the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, after Martin Luther King’s assassination. So, I’m not going to at all bury him to the level of this.

In fact, I applaud him for pointing out his inappropriate observations and comments in that e-mail. I would, however, suggest a couple of things. One, if he is concerned that white basketball fans in Atlanta don’t want to attend Atlanta Hawk games because of the prevalence of black fans there and black cheerleaders and black music, then I think he needs to have a conversation with them, and not with his marketing department, because they are the problem.

That’s their hangup. And the second thing I would say is that if he’s concerned about disposable income on the part of black fans that do come to those games, once again, that’s a conversation you should have with the business community in Atlanta, which, if it tracks national trends, means that they pay — they pay black workers less than they pay white workers, even when you control for education.

So this is a larger problem than just what’s going on in the Atlanta Hawks’ arena.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You just raised a lot of — a number of questions that we could spend some time on.

But, Christine Brennan, what — what does this say about the — I mean, it made a number of people, I know, wonder about the attitudes of white owners across the board and people who are in the business of promoting professional basketball.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: And a sport that is so racially diverse and inclusive, and then this is what we hear.

I think Levenson himself said it best when he sent the e-mail apologizing and saying, he’s a leader and basically he blew it. And as a businessman, this is the 21st century, obviously. The 50- to — or the 60-, 70-, 80-year-old fans are going to be gone sooner rather than later.

The 20-, 30-year-olds are going to be around for a long time. They have grown up in a very different country. You have got to play to them, whether it’s on issue of sexual orientation, race, gender. It’s got to be — you have got to be much more open-minded.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But that hasn’t happened.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Well, at least he said, I blew it and I’m done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But is there reason to believe, Kevin, that this is an attitude that’s more — that’s wider — more widely held, more prevalent than what we have heard?

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Sure, some people have suggested that.

But I would just point out that Levenson is part of corporate America, and big-time sports are a part of corporate America. And so do other owners believe that?  I wouldn’t be surprised that they don’t. The Atlanta Braves just packed up and left downtown Atlanta for the suburbs to be closer to their more moneyed fan base.

David Stern, the previous commissioner of the NBA, was the one who spearheaded the policy towards how the laborers in the NBA would dress and appear before the public. So this has been going on in other language and in other activities as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And reflecting some of what you said just very quickly, Christine, it sounds like some of these owners in making these decisions are not necessarily thinking yet about the younger generation.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: No, they’re not, but they are going to have to one way or the other. That’s for sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We are going to leave it there.

Christine Brennan, Kevin Blackistone, we thank you both.