On Bad Faith in the NFL

Last Monday morning my news feeds were full of the inequity-slash-reverse-sexism of U.S. Soccer’s refusal to bench Hope Solo. Solo faces assault charges for striking her seventeen-year-old nephew and sister-in-law during a drunken family brawl (she’s pleaded not guilty), and many think it’s a piece of hypocrisy for the sporting establishment to overlook the legal troubles of Hope Solo while condemning the likes of the NFL’s Ray Rice.

USA Today called media silence over the charges “unseemly,” and the Washington Post called Solo’s case “the domestic violence case no one is talking about.” But Twitter was a racket of complaints about a purported double standard and media hypocrisy in the wake of the NFL’s recent assault-related blunders.

 

Of course, I am far from the first person to notice that the supposed equivalence of Ray Rice and Hope Solo is at best false and more probably deeply nefarious. Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic, Jennifer Doyle at The Sport Spectacle, and Amanda Hess over at Slate have written properly caustic pieces censuring the sexist apologists who would equate misdemeanor assault with wife-battery (see, too, Kate Fagan at ESPNW; though also see Kate Fagan). Women’s soccer, Hess quite rightly reminds us, does not have a systemic domestic abuse problem. The NFL does.

But the calls of “hypocrisy” bouncing around the Twitter-chamber struck me as somehow disingenuous. You keep using that word, dear Twitterers, but I do not think it means what you think it means.

Things start out innocently enough with media commentary over the NFL’s bungling of the Ray Rice affair—alongside recent allegations against Greg Hardy, Ray McDonald, Quincy Enunwa, Adrian Peterson, and Jonathan Dwyer. A few cries of “hypocrisy” surfaced when Rice was suspended for just two games following his March indictment for knocking out his then-fiancée Janay Palmer in an Atlantic City casino. Agreed, a light suspension seemed like a way of having one’s morals (taking a stance against domestic abuse) and eating them too (making that stance as harmless to the economics of the game as possible), and that’s hypocrisy—especially when the NFL’s “A Crucial Catch“ campaign partners with the American Cancer Society to raise awareness for breast cancer in an ostensible effort to support women’s health.

But then the gossip site TMZ released the surveillance video from within the casino elevator—video we’ve all seen by now—in which Rice slams Palmer with a left hook and drags her limp body into the hall. Only then and in response to loud public outrage did the Ravens release Rice, and only then did NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspend him indefinitely. And that is when the hypocrisy talk really got flowing (and flowing and flowing and flowing).

Because it gets worse. The Ravens and the NFL have been accused of deliberately covering for Ray Rice and quietly advocating for leniency when they knew early on the brutality of his assault on Janay Palmer. In a lengthy “Outside the Lines” report, Don Van Natta and Kevin Van Valkenburg cite, among other fairly persuasive details, an alleged early April phone conversation in which Rice’s lawyer Michael J. Diamondstein advised Ravens president Dick Cass that the video was “fucking horrible” and that “Ray knocked her the fuck out.” Another witness claims to have described the contents of the elevator video to Ravens management mere hours after the incident. (And, now at least one law enforcement official has confirmed that the video was mailed to league security chief Jeffrey Miller in April, though Miller denies having seen the video prior to its September 8 debut on TMZ.)

So, there’s a sort of bumbling hypocrisy that mishandles a scandal and only corrects it when not-so-gently prodded, and then there’s deeply wicked, dissembling hypocrisy. The kind of hypocrisy in which you know you’re an evil-doer and do the evil anyway, until you get caught, at which point you quickly if somewhat haphazardly change course, update your conduct policy, hire a few ladies to help you “get your house in order,” donate some money to a worthy cause, and duck out to wait for shit to blow over. Now that’s some hypocrisy, and it feels good to say so, dudn’t it?

The reason, though, it feels so good to call hypocrisy against Roger Goodell, against the Ravens, against the NFL, and against the whole sports-industrial-complex is that we need a little relief from our complicity in that hypocrisy. We’re happy to call hypocrisy on the NFL because it releases us (just briefly) from a much more insidious day-to-day hypocrisy, a form of bad faith about exactly who bears the responsibility for violence against women.

Damning though it may be with respect to the NFL’s apparently deliberate misinformation, the “Outside the Lines” exposé remains remarkably sympathetic to Rice himself. The authors write, for example, that League execs “attempted to pin the blame” for Rice’s original two-game suspension “on Rice and his alleged lack of truthfulness.” They describe in detail Rice’s community service, his philanthropy, a tear-soaked confession supposedly given to his personal trainer. They let us know that the “altercation” preceding Rice’s videotaped assault on Palmer was fueled, specifically, by “at least one bottle of Patron Tequila, Rice’s favorite liquor.”

Twice the authors inform us that Rice “didn’t sugarcoat” the story he told his trainer Kyle Jakobe or Ravens coach John Harbaugh. The authors even veer into the mind of the accused on the day before TMZ leaked the second video: “Rice went to bed that night feeling the storm that had consumed his life for seven months was finally about to subside.” Of course, then TMZ dropped the video, all hell broke loose, and “Rice was further castigated.”

This fellow-traveling language extends as well to the description of Rice’s physical assault on Palmer: “Rice’s punch knocked his fiancée unconscious.” Not Rice but, rather, his punch knocked Janay Palmer out. That big, bad disembodied punch.

And then, perhaps most deplorably, the narrative of Rice’s contrition mimics the way in which Janay (now-)Rice has been called to publicly defend her husband. “With his wife sitting by his side in a conference room,” write Van Natta and Van Valkenburg, “Rice told Goodell that he hit her and knocked her out . . . [Janay] emotionally asked Goodell not to impose a penalty on Rice that would take away their livelihood and besmirch his name.”

The image invoked in this passage repeats the much-criticized press conference appearance in which Janay Rice read aloud an apology for her “role” in the Revel casino “incident.” In this familiar scenario, the abused testifies to her abuser’s contrition, to his remorse, and to his overall good character in spite of an “incident,” for which she is also partially responsible and which is itself imagined to be singular, idiosyncratic, uncharacteristic, a blunder or a mistake.

Not only do the writers demand sympathy on behalf of Ray Rice, they write Janay Rice a supporting role in a drama of mismanagement and institutional duplicity. She becomes a pawn in the NFL’s scheme to pillory Rice and a sympathetic figure only in her support for her put-upon husband, who’s been recast, in turn, as the primary victim in this whole unfortunate debacle.

One of the many faults in the rhetoric of NFL hypocrisy is that it imagines the problem of domestic abuse to be a problem of management rather than one of criminality.

Let’s be straightforward here. Head-butting your wife because she won’t have sex with you is a criminal act. Choking your girlfriend and throwing her into a bathtub is a criminal act. Beating your fiancée to the point of unconsciousness—with your fist or with your open hand—is a criminal act. Ray Rice behaved criminally; Roger Goodell, on the other hand, fucked up a management problem.

When we make the story of Ray Rice’s criminal act a story about NFL hypocrisy, we subtly shift the discussion from one about the abuse of people (specifically, women) to one about the abuse of something more abstract—power, funds, position. We shift responsibility for wrong-doing away from criminal agents and onto PR teams, lawyers, and executives, who are charged not with crimes in themselves but of mishandling the people who are charged with crimes.

Some of the same moves have been made in connection with recent sexual assault cases. Florida State, for example, benched Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston after he shouted “Fuck her right in the pussy” from atop a table in a crowded campus eatery. Bleacher Report’s Tom Weir characterizes the act as a “shenanigan” and wonders whether “FSU handled its quarterback’s latest misdeed correctly.” He skates over the fact that among Winston’s possible “misdeeds” is an alleged sexual assault, an ongoing Title IX investigation which is now being spun by Winston’s attorneys as an extortion attempt on the part of his accuser.

We needn’t close-read Winston’s ham-handed meme citation (though it’s worth noting, I suppose, that the thing’s based on an obscene hoax) to see that the stratagem on display here is one in which linguistic violence and sexual violence are conflated but then detuned, reduced to “shenanigans,” “misdeeds,” or mere adolescent willfulness. Further, the accused once more has been recast as victim. Just a headstrong kid struggling under the pressures of inordinate talent and fame, he’s someone to be managed.

Now, I am in favor of widespread investigation into how university and college administrations handle rape allegations. I am in favor of widespread investigation into the handling of sexual and domestic assault cases in the armed forces, in the police, in the workplace, in the home, in the pub, in the street, in short, anywhere they occur. I am not, however, in favor of reducing violence against women to a problem of management, because to do so is to act in the same bad faith that enables abusers and rapists in the first place.

In 1997, as a seventeen-year-old high school student, I was assaulted by two of my peers. Both were multi-sport athletes, one a regional all-star, not that it matters, and both have gone on to lead more or less mundane lives, neither having ascended into the public spotlight of athletic fame nor having been derailed by what should have been the legal consequences of their criminal acts. They both seem to have families, decent enough jobs, tract houses, probably, in identical cul-de-sacs. I did not report them.

My assailants went unreported for the same reason that rape is the most underreported crime in the United States. I was taught as a young woman to be responsible for male actions, to police my own behavior and appearance so as not to cause men to act poorly. I was taught that the question of whether or not I would be victim to sexual violence was a question of management.

Framing violence against women as a management problem tacitly decriminalizes that violence. Framing Ray Rice’s assault on Janay Palmer in terms of Roger Goodell’s poor handling and hypocrisy erases the crime of Janay Palmer’s abuse, smoothing it into a PR problem to be negotiated by the (almost to a person) men in charge while Janay manages her private life with the man who punched her in the face.

It’s also what allows one to draw a through-line from Rice to Solo. While the cases differ at the very least in the kinds of violence they exemplify, they are similarly pitched as problems in player management, equal in one respect if in no other.

Softly paternalistic, morally insouciant, complacent—the NFL’s handling of domestic abuse and sexual violence is all of these things and more. But is it hypocritical?

Only if you believe better management will solve the problem.

Katie Muth teaches contemporary literature and culture in the United Kingdom, where from time to time she crawls out of bed at odd hours to consume American sporting events.

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