He hasn’t taken a snap in the NFL since 2013, but he continues to haunt the league, its teams, and most importantly their employees.
In a dizzying two-month window from late July to late September of 2014, Ray Rice’s domestic violence case nearly brought down a Commissioner. And the effort to ensure that matters of domestic violence will never again threaten the $40 million-per-year throne has become a significant threat to the annual income of the men who play the game.
At the time of Ray Rice’s initial punishment (which happened before the elevator video emerged), the NFL had a standard practice of suspending players two games for first-offense domestic violence. When Rice was suspended only two games, fans and media unleashed a hue and cry that caught the NFL by surprise, forcing it to change the baseline suspension for first-offense domestic violence to six games.
Then came the release of the notorious knockout video, which frankly didn’t show the NFL anything the NFL didn’t already know. The aftermath nearly brought down the Commissioner. After that, the league decided that it would never again defer to the criminal justice system, and that it will always conduct its own investigation in order to ensure that a player who gets the benefit of the doubt in a court of law when perhaps he didn’t deserve it doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt in the Court of Big Shield.
Three years ago, Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliot would have faced no scrutiny at all from the league if he was never arrested for or charged with domestic violence. Today, thanks to the Rice situation, Elliott faces the loss of six game checks, partial forfeiture of his signing bonus, elimination of his future guarantees, significant loss of endorsement income, and the scarlet letter of domestic abuser.
If Elliott committed domestic violence, he deserves to be punished. But when a player (or any employee of any company) has an incident away from work and during the offseason and the player is never arrested for it, why should the NFL care?
The NFL cares not because it’s good for business to care, but because it’s very bad for business to not care. While it’s fine that the NFL does care, it’s not fine that the NFL uses an in-house investigative process that operates under a grossly reduced standard of proof with ultimate decision-making authority in the hands of the man who saw the bunglings of the Rice case nearly bring him down. Given those circumstances, is anyone surprised that the league will now err at all times on the side of branding a player guilty?
The nation’s justice system was founded on the notion that it’s better for 10 guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to be wrongfully imprisoned. The NFL’s justice system seems to stand for the notion that it’s better for 10 innocent men to be punished too much than for one guilty man to punished not enough, since when that one guilty man is punished not enough the league office ends up under siege, and the man in charge has to suddenly fret about his own job security.
All of it traces back to Ray Rice, and his decision to punch Janay Palmer in the face in an elevator that had a camera in it. If that never happens, Elliott would never have gotten suspended.