Ray and Janay: The Tale of an NFL Domestic Violence and PR Fiasco

Here’s a story: The NFL decides its players will have league ramifications for unrelated criminal behavior. The league then botches its handling of a domestic violence incident due to otherwise exemplary behavior on the part of the player involved; it being a one time incident, and the outspoken claims and support from the victim, And thus, in response, makes the suspension for this player too short.

Given that the NFL suspends its players for more than two games for drug infractions that hurt no one else – or maybe even regardless of this consideration – there is public outcry over a player, with or without a lot of alcohol involved, apparently hitting his fiance hard enough to where she falls and gets temporarily knocked out as result, and yet getting only a two game suspension from the NFL.

Then, in response, the NFL commissioner comes out and openly says he made a mistake with the short suspension, that he “didn’t get it right,” and, that the league has toughened its player domestic violence policy, and instituted guidelines of a six game suspension for a first domestic violence offense, and a ban with the right to petition for reinstatement after a year, for the second.

Then the celebrity news site TMZ gets hold of the video of the actual incident, one that the prosecutor and judge in the County (Atlantic) where the incident took place both saw, but which the public did not, and which the NFL claims it did not. And TMZ makes the video public.

Then, suddenly, in response, the video, at least in popular opinion, seemingly becomes considered to be one of the more sickening things ever. It almost becomes the “in” thing to have this opinion.

And what the video shows is disgusting. But it does not, however, show a serial wife beater, but a guy who engaged in a ridiculous and inexcusable but one time punch to his fiance in a moment of dual drunkenness, and which as a symbol, becomes the thing everyone gets outraged about. It is emotional to see, the player is a star, it is very public, and a public story. And getting upset over domestic violence is a good thing to get upset about.

But much worse happens every day, which goes uncovered, and unattended; or is covered, yet receives very little attention or outcry.

The strange thing in this story however is that the video didn’t add much new information to what was already known. If the NFL thought this player – we’ll call him “Ray” – punched her – We’ll call her “Janay” – and she hit something and got knocked out (which is what the video shows), then the two game suspension was very poor form. And despite the fact that the NFL didn’t have to suspend “Ray” at all, as a statement by the NFL it does seem to trivialize the incident.

But before the video came out the NFL essentially acknowledged this; stating that they made a mistake in issuing such a short suspension. The NFL Commissioner himself, again, had even stated: “I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn’t get it right.”

Yet after the video surfaced, the NFL implied that Ray himself gave the impression that he didn’t hit Janay very hard; that they were really scuffling back and forth, and that he hit her with an open hand in response, and she fell and was knocked out.

That is still wrong, and in my book never excusable or acceptable conduct. But a two game suspension for such action is not necessarily an outrage, or something that the NFL needed to come out and issue an official public apology, and mea culpa for, particularly given all the other mitigating factors – such as Ray’s outstanding record prior to the incident, Janay’s full support, his immediate counseling and cooperation, and the county court system’s election for Pre-Trial Intervention rather than trial and sentencing.

Yet the NFL, in response to public outcry, did in fact issue this very emphatic and public apology.

Why?

The apology suggests that the NFL was merely bowing solely to public pressure despite the fact that (if so) the public did not know all of the facts and also had some of the key facts wrong. Or suggests that the NFL had a hunch or more, before the video was made public, that the video showed something a little different than this “soft” version of actual back and forth scuffling and a softer hit and a fall, and that in this instance it instead showed what the initial public outcry was essentially based on, and which is not as soft of a story. Namely, the player involved flat out hit his then fiance, and she fell and hit her head and went unconscious.

Or it suggests that the NFL, far from being soft, is not at all soft on domestic violence in reality, and issued a major apology for the soft suspension for an act that it thought was much less egregious than it really was.

Or it suggests that the NFL was simply being guided by public opinion and trying to maintain a good public image, and thus, again, bowing to public pressure, even though the facts, as the NFL saw them, didn’t warrant it.

Or it suggests a desire on the part of the NFL or the commissioner to respect Janay the victims seemingly heart felt wishes.

Or some combination of the four.

But even if the video showed what was supposedly essentially known, the video apparently did not show what much of America thought. Or it if did, somehow seeing it made it “real,” where otherwise it was not real. Because when the video was shown, there was much more public outrage.

Yet it is hard to gauge just what contributed most to this outrage, because the NFL, upon the sudden public release of the video, reacted in a very strange way. Remember: the NFL acknowledged a full mea culpa and changed its domestic violence policy toward a fairly strict set of guidelines, and the commissioner himself even acknowledged he made a mistake prior to the celebrity gossip site TMZ’s acquisition and release of the video.

If the softened version of what had happened was the NFL’s true belief – that is, more scuffling, and less of a direct punch – this video showed something a little different; it showed essentially no real scuffling, just her perhaps half halfheartedly trying to slap him, with them both stating some really angry things at each other (which the video version shown to the AP, and which includes audio, suggests), and his strike being perhaps quicker and stronger, with hand apparently closed. But the rest is spot on to what was known.

So here is where our story gets interesting:  Within hours of the release of the video, the team that Ray played for immediately cut him as a player. And the NFL dismissed his earlier two game suspension, and promptly suspended him indefinitely.

These facts, along with the video and news of it itself, ran like wildfire across the nation; making this at one point the top trending story, not just the top trending sports story. People everywhere soon heard (or saw) that a “shocking new” video came out, and that the NFL had suddenly all but banned this player immediately in response.

No matter how logical we otherwise want to be about it, this conveyed the powerful idea that this video consisted of major new information which had not been known, and which information thus “shocked” the NFL itself.  And this in turn made the new video all the more sensationalist, and greatly widened the gap in perception between what this player had supposedly originally done, and what this video, in stark, dark, contrast, clearly showed.

When in fact that gap was not large at all, and, depending on how exactly the NFL “read” the original situation, was somewhat small, to nonexistent. (Remember, it could have been larger, but then the NFL’s major apology for the short suspension makes less sense.)

This ill thought out and seeming immediate “damage control” response of all but ditching all ties with Ray greatly amplified the perception of the video as some sort of sensational alteration or addition to the basic story, when it was not. And it also greatly amplified the perception of disconnect between the way the NFL originally handled this – two game suspension – and what the video showed.

All but forgotten, in an emotional sense anyway, was that the NFL had already acknowledged a mistake on this matter, and that the suspension should have been longer, and that the video is more consistent with the NFL’s earlier apology, than not.

But because of this huge gap between what was perceived to have been the first “story,” and the true video story – though it is unclear, being as the video showed the simple if direct story of him throwing out one fast athletic punch, her falling as a result, and hitting her head, what that “story” thus is – people immediately began to reasonably wonder in hindsight, and big time, why the NFL had not gotten the tape.

Also perhaps somewhat overlooked was that the NFL was not our judicial system; in foresight, the NFL did not necessarily need to see a tape that both prosecutor and judge had seen, and of a player who in the criminal system was put into the Pre-Trial Prevention program, of a situation that it may have thought it had a good handle on between those facts and the statements of the two actors (him and her) involved, and of his exemplary conduct prior to, and since.

At the same time, if the NFL was really interested in just what had happened exactly, they might have tried harder to get the tape, or state to Ray or his attorney “we have the discretion to suspend you for a lot of games under league policy and we need to see a copy of that video before we decide on a suspension.”

That the league did not do so, either shows they wanted to believe this player; or it shows that they already suspected that the conduct was more in line with what the video showed, and not the softer “scuffle” and open hand hit. (If not trained in martial arts an open hand is usually indicative of less intent, and usually accompanies a softer blow as well; if trained it has to be individually assessed.)

If the NFL really believed that it was not a full blow, and that they were scuffling, and both them were really drunk (this last fact seems not in dispute so far anyway), then – given these facts as well as the court’s viewing of the video and Janay’s reasonably expressed wishes as the victim – the NFL should not, even in response to the public outcry, have said it made such a large mistake, since if that was the case it did not. (Other than perhaps in such case failing to be skeptical of the Atlantic Country court system and making sure to get the video to see just what it showed.) Unless the NFL simply went overboard trying to curry good public favor with its apology (and in the process, ultimately not gaining any favor at all), and issued the apology for that reason alone, which seems less likely.

What was actually believed by the commissioner and the relevant parties at the NFL prior to the video being released is hard to pinpoint. But there were certainly some Pollyannaish or hopeful beliefs, such as those by Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti. This throws even more intrigue into the story, as Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome – who was part of the “unanimous consent” to immediately cut Ray from the team after the video surfaced – insists that Ray didn’t lie.

Thereby, raising this question for Newsome and the Ravens: “If he didn’t lie, how come you cut him after a video showing him “not lying” surfaced?

This drastic response by the Ravens – to a video tape that showed that Ray “did not lie,” and thus at least more or less simply showed “what had happened and was already known,” and the NFL’s similarly severe and immediate response, together very powerfully made it seem as if the information contained in the video tape was wildly new. It had to have been: Why else would the NFL, which initially gave him such a short suspension over this exact same incident, suddenly all but sever all ties with this player.

But the information contained in the video was largely not new at all. And to the extent a little of what was contained in the video may have been new for the NFL, a response in line with their previously expressed mea culpa would have been consistent. Their response, instead,  was, again, consistent with the idea that the video, in contrast to what the NFL “knew” was explosive.

When it wasn’t.

But what would be the public outcry have been if, on top of the video itself, this incident didn’t get sensationalized by a “shocking” video that takes the one punch by Ray and plays it over and over and over; and, more pointedly, if the NFL had not acted in near immediate and somewhat final response as if Ray had never hit her, and then suddenly a video surfaced showing that, in fact, in direct contradiction, he did.

The public had already been upset over the matter. E.g.: “He hit her, and as result she fell and was knocked unconscious, and (one time blow or not) you only gave a two game suspension? What is wrong with you!”

To which reaction the NFL reasonably responded: “In this matter, a lot; we really screwed up, and we’re even instituting newer tougher domestic violence offense guidelines for all employees, not just players.

But what makes what the NFL did a more publicly available and seemingly outrageous mistake than the way the court system handled the matter – as commissioner Roger Goodell found when he reached out to experts initially – is not that in a big scuffle back and forth this person filled with alcohol happened to slap her and she was teetering from so much alcohol she fell and banged her head.

Instead, what makes it more outrageous seeming is that he punched her hard enough so that she fell and banged her head. Which is exactly what this new tape showed.  And the fact that, drinking heavily or not, she was knocked out as a result. As the part of the tape that was reviewed by the NFL and made public many months ago (showing footage of him trying to move her from the elevator), had already clearly shown.

Yet when the video surfaced the NFL suddenly dropped Ray like a bad dream. Even while the video showed the basic facts as they already existed. Or if it showed major new facts, as per the NFL’s understanding, it made the NFL’s initial suspension under all of the circumstances defensible, and their subsequent major public mea culpa excessive. (At the very least, while it provides more evidence that the NFL botched the handling of this (something not so much into dispute from nearly any quarters) this would be evidence that the NFL takes the issue very seriously, yet the NFL is currently being scapegoated for not doing so.)

And if the facts as the video shows them to be weren’t already known – at least in terms of the NFL’s way of looking at it – this was a good opportunity for the NFL to be able to get around their initial weak two game suspension, clarify what the NFL had originally thought, and clarify that this video provided enough new evidence that consistent with the NFLPA – NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) they could suspend this player consistent with the new domestic violence guidelines.

But in acting in a morally outraged fashion – which was also bad public relations, since it was the NFL itself which had initially treated this as if it was a much smaller deal – the NFL, and the Ravens, at least in part, helped create the very same moral outrage that is calling for Goodell’s job as commissioner now.

And by acting in this way, the NFL also created a lot of hoopla, public outcry, and deep skepticism over why the NFL had not seen the video.

In other words, if the video is that big a deal that the NFL, apology in the interim or not, went from giving a two game suspension to all but banishing Ray from the league (by both the NFL and his now former team) within hours of it surfacing – though of course in foresight it could not have known this – why didn’t the NFL look at it before?

The NFL, by its reaction, either created or helped to intensify the somewhat erroneous impression that it had erred terribly or even engaged in some sort of wrong doing by not somehow getting the videotape instead of relying upon the court system’s findings, Ray and Janay’s statements, Janay the victim’s strongly expressed wishes, and Ray’s prior excellent record in the matter.

The NFL, more consistently with the actual facts, and with respect to the video, could have stated: “Those are essentially the facts as we know them, but the video does show a bit more aggression and directness. And as we initially stated, we initially erred in this matter in handing out only a two game suspension. But this extra aggression provides materially new evidence to set aside our initial suspension term under the CBA, and instead now be guided by the new policy guidelines we have established, which suggests a 6 game suspension for the first time offense.” While it would not have been perfect – the NFL had botched this from the start after all – it would not have made it considerably worse, as the response that they did choose, instead very likely did.

The rationale for moving to the new policy and six game suspension is that there was reason in hindsight to have seen the video; the NFL had acknowledged the mistake and couldn’t really change what they had done under the CBA; but now that the video  had surfaced showing new evidence, the NFL could arguably do so. And more importantly, the NFL could do so without adding to the hysteria by acting morally outraged and hysterical themselves, and only making the NFL look far, far worse in the process, for then “not having gotten this tape in the first place” if in fact it is that outrageously different that the NFL had to suddenly react this powerfully and quickly upon seeing it, as if it was all new information.

What has been created by all of this is a scandal of major proportions. One that, while the incident between Ray and his then fiance is despicable, as are all such incidents – and which, among many far worse incidents and even patterns, are all too common – really may not be that scandalous.

And as a result, the outrage toward the NFL is palpable.

On Friday Morning, Philadelphia Eagles Center Jason Kelce appeared on a morning radio talk show, and stated:

If they would have just came out and said, ‘you know what we had a wrong—we made a wrong decision, we should have suspended him for longer, this is something that we mishandled,’ I would have had a lot more respect for the NFL than what they’re doing now, which seems like they are just backtracking and trying to save face in front of the fans and it’s clear as day, I think to me, they’re lying and misleading people.”

That is what the NFL did – that is, say that that they were wrong. Then, after the video came out – which is apparently when Kelce is thus talking about – the NFL did not do this: instead, the NFL acted near hysterically, and fueled, rather than mitigated, further outrage over the video, by, ironically, taking an even stronger, but seemingly knee jerk, response to it; and by doing so making the video the end all be all of the story, rather than the mild addition or clarification to the story that it really was.

Thus causing public outrage to grow more.

Now a clever but in some ways sensationalist and misleading Cover Girl “Put Your Game Face On” image has circulated the country. Funny and apt if it is part metaphor for the black eye that the NFL has given itself, not quite so funny and perhaps even misleading if it is claiming that the NFL holds its players to certain standards but yet is largely indifferent to domestic violence, or that the problem of domestic violence is rampant in the NFL as compared with the rest of society.

Only adding even further to the mess, a copy of the video, which is in fact security camera footage from inside the elevator, was also claimed to have been delivered to the NFL by an anonymous law enforcement official months earlier. The anonymous source also played a recording for the members of the Associated Press of a female voice, reportedly from an NFL office number, leaving a voice mail confirming receipt and viewing of the video on her part; although there are not a lot of details available, and apparently the date of the voice mail itself pre-dates the given date of the video delivery by a couple of months. (Though that could just be a clerical mistake.)  The commissioner claims he never saw it or was made aware of it.

To top it all off, the NFL has also initiated an investigation to be overseen by two of its owners, John Mara of the New York Giants and Art Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and to be conducted by a former head of the FBI, Robert Mueller.

Mueller may be competent, but it’s not clear that a former director of the FBI is needed here to simply uncover if any of the key players – Goodell or his main advisers – was made aware of a recording allegedly sent to the NFL’s offices. Or of how the NFL otherwise handled the matter.

An “investigation” often creates the patina of wrong doing, as opposed to here, a group of 32 team owners who are rightly concerned with how this was handled and over what perhaps happened to that recording (if it is real) and who is responsible, and who simply want to find out what happened; to both correct errors and improve how things are handled, and, tell the public.

On top of this, electing to have a former “Director of the FBI” head this investigation, which makes a solid sounding headline that, in our world of short sound bite twitter type feeds, often comprises the majority of the story, and which was repeated millions of times on article links, twitter feeds and article headlines, was yet another mistake by the NFL. Here’s why.

So as Al Capone the notorious gangster – upon whom prosecutors could never pin anything related to his most nefarious activities – was finally convicted for an otherwise less enforced but technically legitimate law against tax evasions, Roger Goodell, albeit by a far more metaphoric, highly subjective, and exaggerated comparison, may – if public opinion stays the same and public opinion is to have its way – be ousted over this incident.

Goodell, who very subjectively speaking, and as a matter of pure opinion, has been an over-zealous commissioner who has been pushing hard to dilute the league’s playoffs with even more teams (as if 12 out of 32, well more than a third, aren’t enough) and also lose most of the meaning of playoff byes and largely undermine the most the most brilliant playoff structure in all of professional sports; who constantly seems to support rule changes that favor the offense over the defense (great for many fans, not as great for those who like to see a good balance between offense and defense, who like to see each score stay more relevant, who like to see good defense and the defense play as large of a role as the offense, or who like good football game strategy beyond simple Xs and Os and teams repeatedly marching up and down the field hardly impeded by defensive backs practically not allowed to breathe heavy on wide receivers): and who, ironically, often rules with a heavy moral hand (just not heavy enough, ironically, this past summer for a simple domestic violence case); and, as many NFL players are apt to suggest, just a very heavy hand in general.

Based upon the facts as they exist so far, however, much as in my own biased and perhaps unfair personal opinion I would like to see a new commissioner (though I am starting to re think that upon seeing one of the names that has been far more widely mentioned than any other), and as unpopular as it is to suggest right now, it is not at all clear that the current or even likely facts of this incident warrant the dismissal of Goodell.

He and the NFL botched this initially. But they ultimately gave the involved player a longer suspension than is really warranted under the new, even stronger domestic violence policy; and all the outrage from the visuals of the video aside, gave him a suspension that is also probably longer than is really warranted for – again, not a defendant in our court system, but an NFL player – for a one time first time offense which, fast as it was, consisted of one hit, with his fiance and now wife pleading to let him play, with an exemplary record and complete contrition and accountability afterward.

What Goodell and the NFL have repeatedly botched here is something the NFL has been very good at: The public relations aspect. This has made the entire matter look worse than it is. And with the immediate indefinite suspension of Ray to “make up for” the initial tepid handling, by some views exhibited that same moral high handedness; rather than a more measured consistent approach that wouldn’t have served to falsely widen the perception gap between what actually existed or was “known,” pre and post the surfacing of that video, suggested above.

As did perhaps the Baltimore Ravens as well. I am a fan of owner Steve Bisciotti. (And Ozzie Newsome, and their head coach, John Harbaugh.) But to jump from thinking a two game suspension is acceptable, to outright cutting the player, while the league all but simultaneously suspends him indefinitely, on the facts as they generally seem to have existed before and after the video surfaced, is a bit much. Maybe the suspension was to “buy time.” But another way to buy time is to not respond in a few hours to something that either didn’t add much, and thus didn’t provide much to respond to, or was a major revelation on top of an already complex situation.

The new NFL domestic violence policy calls for six games for a first time offense, which this incident represents. It is also a standard case. On the very negative side, it involved a very hard blow. But on the mitigating side, and not to diminish that first very disturbing fact, it was one punch; they were both very drunk; she does fully support him, and perhaps more importantly as the victim and with no apparent evidence of past abuse deserves some benefit of the doubt here; and his record before and after the incident was strong.

And unless the argument is that “this” incident of domestic violence warrants something higher than the current policy guideline – which would call into question the policy itself since many cases are worse- it seems that by the NFL’s initial mishandling, Ray (so far) wound up getting a far more egregious suspension than he ever would have under the new stronger domestic violence policy. And it seems everyone loses here. The Ravens (presumably, if they otherwise did not want to release him), the public, the fans, the NFL, and Ray and Janay.

If it turns out Goodell was made aware of the tape and has lied about it (it’s going out on a limb to make predictions, but I predict that is not the case, and it would be quite a surprise if it is),  then of course, although it is the owners call, he should be let go because he won’t be trusted as commissioner any more by the public, by the players, or by the owners.

And that is where out story will end. If not, it will end where it does – or at least this part of it – upon the finding of the investigation, and the outcome of the appeal that Ray is allegedly planning to contest the league’s indefinite suspension of him.

Ray’s been made into a bit of a pariah, but he should appeal. His suspension should have been six games. While there is a disturbing pattern of “battered wife” syndrome as well as abuse victim sometimes enabling their abusers by defending them or not really acknowledging their actions, to leap to that conclusion in this case is premature, and at this point apparently not supportable.

While his now wife’s support of him may be questionable in light of even that one time incident of behavior, the fact that it was a one time incident and that Ray has been granted Pre-Trial Intervention by the courts, is undergoing counseling, and that she has known him and been friends with him since high school, means that her wishes in this matter have to be respected and taken into consideration as well. That Goodell did this initially is at least supportable. Unless of course the league thought he hit her hard enough to clearly knock her down and hit something and get knocked out (just what the video shows) in which case the 6 game suspension is clearly appropriate.

And had the league just done this, even after the video came out – and clearly acknowledged its mistakes and revealed what extra information the video added, and suggested that in hindsight it should have made the suspension decision conditional upon getting a copy of the video (as well as explaining why it didn’t and acknowledging any mistakes there), the league probably wouldn’t have quite this black of an eye:

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4 thoughts on “Ray and Janay: The Tale of an NFL Domestic Violence and PR Fiasco

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