It can be dangerous business to publicly comment on the disciplinary action taken by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell regarding Ravens running back Ray Rice. His two-game suspension of Rice for domestic violence has outraged many commentators for its leniency. Others who have downplayed the seriousness of Rice's misconduct or blamed the victim rightly have suffered penalties of their own. The real problem with Goodell's action, however, is that it constitutes a lost opportunity to alter the way people behave.
Rice deserves a loss of income for the damage he has caused to the NFL's reputation. The reality is that a much more serious penalty -- for example, a year's suspension -- would not have been upheld by the NFL's labor arbitrator. However, Goodell's action can be faulted because it is misdirected and does not do much to address the serious societal dysfunction of spousal abuse.
Some might ask why it should be the NFL's responsibility to address this issue at all. Domestic violence is pervasive across a broad spectrum of society -- football players, day laborers, blue-collar workers and professionals alike. While NFL players have been involved in various forms of criminal misbehavior over the years, it is not their exclusive province. Certainly, Goodell's suspension of Rice was intended to send a message to the players that they would not be given a free pass when it comes to domestic violence. The NFL has a legitimate and substantial business reason for imposing discipline for conduct that threatens the League's image. That is an important business goal, but it does not do much regarding the societal scourge of domestic abuse.
The primary obligation of the 32 clubs of the National Football League and their players is to produce an entertainment product -- something it does quite proficiently. One side effect of the NFL's success, however, is that these talented athletes have become important figures in society. That may have not been their primary motive in pursuing a career in professional athletics, but there are burdens that come along with success. Just ask Johnny Manziel, nee "Johnny Football," how the scrutiny of his private life has changed by his being drafted in the first round.
The public and the media carefully observe the off-field behavior of professional football players. Their imperfections -- and they have as many as other people -- are magnified by their status. When Ray Rice allegedly assaulted his fiancé and dragged her body out of that elevator in Atlantic City, he became a symbol of testosterone cruelty. Whether that impression was warranted or not -- he was not subjected to criminal prosecution and thus not given his day in court -- is unclear, but everyone saw the security video.
The punishment should not simply fit the crime. It should be instrumental in avoiding its repetition anywhere, anytime, by anyone. Rice and the NFL can be instrumental in making that happen. It is not enough simply to apologize and ask for forgiveness from your spouse or partner. The "punishment" Goodell should have imposed would have required that Mr. Rice speak out publicly and repeatedly about the evils of domestic violence. He and his fellow role models should stand up against this type of misbehavior.
The NFL has a role to play in altering public perceptions. The game played each week is vicious and debilitating, and the League now has stood up to the challenge of making its players "whole." The NFL should also step forward to redress the injuries caused by its players off the field. That is the price the remarkably successful League must pay and the place to start is with domestic violence. The Commissioner can find a modest allocation somewhere in the ten billion dollars the NFL grosses each year that can be used to address this critical issue.
The players of the NFL are not responsible for every incident of domestic violence, but they and the League they represent are privileged to hold positions of influence in society. Whether warranted or not, people look up to football players. If and when they speak out against domestic violence, racism or homophobia, people will listen. Roger Goodell knows about the power of the enterprise he operates. In imposing discipline on Ray Rice, he had the opportunity to use that power to decrease the incidents of domestic abuse, and he missed the tackle.