Was Ray Rice’s Punishment Fair?
I’ll preface this all by stating Ray Rice’s actions were unacceptable and I am in no way defending them or Rice. The purpose of this post is to examine whether or not Rice’s punishments from the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office in New Jersey and the National Football League, respectively, were appropriate. The former originally charged Rice with third-degree aggravated assault of his then fiancée now wife Janay Palmer. Had Rice been convicted of the felony charge, he could have faced three to five years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000. Instead, Rice pleaded not guilty and subsequently applied for a pretrial intervention program to avoid formal prosecution. Rice was accepted into the program and will avoid jail time upon successful completion of the programs requirements and could possibly have the charge expunged in the near future. If Rice does not meet the requirements, the charges will come back in full force and this alternative will not be available. This is important to keep in mind, as Rice has been given the opportunity to avoid jail time but the possibility is not extinguished.
This may seem lenient, but there were mitigating factors the court likely considered in deciding whether or not to accept him into the pretrial intervention program. Rice had no criminal record, does a considerable amount of charity work, and began counseling with Palmer immediately following the incident. Palmer remaining with Rice after the incident and subsequently marrying him also likely helped to illustrate this was abnormal behavior for Rice and not one in a pattern of violent episodes. Given these circumstances, I believe even if Rice was not a famous athlete he would have been given the same opportunity to avoid a conviction and jail time. The justice system is typically lenient on first time offenders, and especially those with a chance of rehabilitation without incarceration. Had this not been Rice’s first brush with the law and Palmer indicated the incident was not an aberration, the results likely would have been much different.
This week, the National Football League announced Rice would be suspended two games and forfeit a paycheck for a third game he will be able to play in. There has been considerable outcry that the punishment is too lenient, with many claiming it sends the message that commissioner Roger Goodell and by extension the League does not take domestic violence seriously. I disagree, and think Goodell made the right choice in light of all the circumstances. As the court in New Jersey considered mitigating circumstances, it is likely Goodell considered the same if not more. Palmer went with Rice to meet with Goodell, something she clearly did not have to do, and while no one knows exactly what was said in the meeting it seemed to sway Goodell to err on the side of leniency. Goodell also likely considered Rice’s work with anti-bullying programs in Baltimore and that he has never had to reprimand Rice for anything in the past. Alternatively, Goodell may have just thought a two game suspension and a third without pay was punishment enough. I understand two games doesn’t sound like a lot, but in the NFL it is just over 12% of the season. The suspension is equivalent to a twenty game suspension in Major League Baseball or a ten game suspension in the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League. Further, Rice is losing over $700,000 in salary (nearly 18% of his total salary for the season) as a result of the punishment. For a first time offender, I truly do not think this can be called a joke of a punishment or one that is far too lenient. I do not believe this sends the message that the league does not take domestic violence seriously.
Many critics of the punishment are pointing to Goodell’s harsher punishment of players like Josh Gordon and Justin Blackmon as evidence that the league takes a stronger stance against illegal drugs than it does against domestic violence. The comparison is simply not apt or fair. The league has a stated drug policy and there are set penalties for violating it. Of course, Goodell reserves the right to adjust these penalties when necessary and has been tough on repeat offenders like Gordon and Blackmon. There are no set penalties for domestic violence and I do not believe there should be. Each situation is unique and I think Goodell is better served addressing these situations as they arise. Drugs are much more black and white than domestic violence: player tests positive or he does not, is arrested for possession or consumption or he is not. Domestic violence can encompass a myriad of incidents varying greatly in severity and attempting to standardize punishments for charges that are not for standard incidents would be tedious and counterproductive.
Further, to compare Rice’s situation to those of Gordon and Blackmon is comical. Gordon was suspended indefinitely in College for marijuana use, tested positive for marijuana in 2013 and was suspended by the NFL for two games only to test positive again less than a year later. This triggered a full season suspension and then Gordon was arrested for driving while impaired shortly after the second positive test. Only recently has Gordon checked into rehab to address his drug problem. He has been a repeat offender and did not correct his behavior after receiving a lenient initial punishment. Blackmon was arrested for driving under the influence twice in college, twice tested positive for illegal drugs in the NFL and while on indefinite suspension for these infractions was arrested for possession of marijuana. Like Gordon, Blackmon never seems to learn and has not even checked himself into rehab. Rice immediately went to counseling and apologized for his actions following the incident and every step he has taken since has been the right one.
This is not to say Rice is a saint. What he did was deplorable. However, this is the first time he has made a mistake like this or of any kind (at least publicly) and he deserves the chance to rehabilitate himself without having the proverbial book thrown at him. To compare him, after his first offense of anything, to guys who have been punished for repeated offenses of different league policies and laws is inappropriate. I believe Ray Rice has been punished fairly by both the judicial system and the NFL. Hopefully, Rice does not follow the missteps of Josh Gordon or Justin Blackmon and takes advantage of his opportunity get back on the right path.