Late Wednesday, Mark Maske of the Washington Post reported that the NFL is reconsidering its approach to handling domestic violence, after weeks of criticism for the decision to suspend running back Ray Rice from playing for the Baltimore Ravens for a mere two games after he allegedly hit his girlfriend—now wife—Janay Palmer, and dragged and dropped her unconscious body in an elevator. Many observers, such as Louisa Thomas of Grantland, have pointed out that this suspension is only half as long as what is typically handed out to a player who fails a drug test, calling into question whether the league thinks smoking weed or dropping molly is worse than hurting your partner so badly she appears to have lost consciousness.
“The prospective new policy, if it is implemented, could establish guidelines for a suspension of four to six games without pay for a first offense and potentially a season-long suspension for a second incident,” Maske writes, attributing the information to anonymous inside sources. Let’s hope so. In fact, ideally the league would have a policy where these penalties are more than guidelines but mandatory minimum penalties. While that might seem extreme, there needs to be a system so that players who abuse their partners can’t manipulate the emotions of those doling out suspensions.
When it comes to domestic violence, special pleading tends to work magic in getting people to forgive or look the other way. The Rice situation is a good example of this. Palmer has been out front in Rice’s team’s efforts to minimize what happened in that Atlantic City casino. The couple got married. Palmer joined him at a press conference to send the signal that she had equal responsibility for what happened. As Thomas notes, Commissioner Roger Goodell “reportedly met with Ray Rice’s wife, Janay, Rice, and four other men — Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome, Ravens president Dick Cass, and NFL execs Jeff Pash and Adolpho Birch — and took Janay’s plea for leniency for Rice into account,” to which Thomas sarcastically notes, “no imbalance in that room, right?” It’s hard to imagine these events didn’t have an impact on Rice’s light punishment.
In terms of punishment, it shouldn’t matter if a wife or girlfriend forgives her abuser—that has no bearing on how guilty the accused abuser is. As I’ve written before, alleged victims recant much to most of the time, for a variety of perfectly understandable reasons: They love their partners and don’t want to get them in trouble. They’re financially dependent. They just want to put it behind them. They hope that the incidents were anomalies and they will never happen again.
Whatever is going on between a couple really should be beside the point. The issue here is that the NFL needs to have a hardline stance against players, who are generally big and strong guys, using that physicality to beat up women. (Yes, even if women hit first. The NFL should reasonably expect that self-defense does not require beating down someone who is smaller and weaker than you just because you can.) Having minimum suspension requirements is the only way to block the other factors and simply administer the punishment that the player—whoever he is, and however valuable to the team he is, and whatever his partner has to say—deserves.