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Sports

Ray Rice, Roger Goodell, and Irrelevant Humanity

When pedants lean on policy, you get the ongoing moral disaster that is the NFL.
September 8, 2014, 5:35pm
Photo via Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Goodell's pedantry got the better of him. In early August, when he was asked why he suspended Ray Rice for just two games, he cited the running back's charity work, his previously spotless record, and his contrition in the wake of his crime. Goodell also stressed that the ban hewed closely to the letter of the law. "We can't just make up the discipline," he said. "It has to be consistent with other cases, and it was in this matter."

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But Roger Goodell saw the tape. The one that's circulating today, where Rice strikes Janay Palmer, rendering her unconscious, and head-on into a railing. Those of us who live in the real world, where at least one in four women will be a victim of domestic violence in their lifetime, already had a reasonably clear idea of what happened in that elevator. Now everyone knows for sure. Goodell knew before the rest of us, and before he decided Rice's fate. The commissioner watched the video, weighed all the other available evidence, and thought two games was the correct punishment.

Whenever a domestic violence case generates national headlines, pedants crack their knuckles and get to work. They ask about the woman's role in the dispute. They say we don't have all the details. (What if she came at him first?) They talk about how the man involved is a good guy who simply made a mistake. In this particular instance, a pedant went on an ESPN morning show and lectured women about how they need to be careful not to piss off their boyfriends and husbands, lest they run the risk of getting what Janay Palmer got. These are ways of putting distance between the conversation about a domestic assault and the assault itself.

Since most of these altercations happen in private, we rarely have video evidence of them. We don't often see the fist connect with the jaw or the woman falling lifelessly to the floor. The elevator footage foregrounds the gruesomeness of Rice's act. It cuts through the pedant's chatter. It declares: "This is what happened. It was awful."

Even when faced with the awfulness of what happened, Goodell listened to his inner pedant. We can sympathize with him, if only a bit. Having to put a number to something like this isn't a desirable responsibility, and Goodell is right, he can't just make up discipline. He couldn't have watched the video we're all watching today and delivered a verdict based solely upon gut instinct, because one imagines he would have elected to toss Ray Rice into the mouth of an active volcano. Goodell must have been angry when he saw Rice punch Palmer. He must have rewound the tape a few times and seen her head catch the railing. He must have seen that Rice didn't even seem sorry afterward, how he treated her limp body like an inconvenience.

Goodell saw the video. But he chose to treat it like just another fact of the case rather than the fact of the case. He looked, not within himself but within the margins of a rulebook. (It's telling that he "fixed" his misguided initial ruling by passing policy.) The NFL needs someone in charge whose humanity informs his decision-making. Goodell treats his like it's irrelevant.