Does the NFL Take Domestic Violence Lightly?

The National Football League has come under a lot of heat for its two-game suspension of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. In February, Rice had an altercation with his then-fiancée (now wife), Janay Palmer, which ended with Rice knocking her unconscious and dragging her body out of an elevator. Rice was indicted on a charge of third-degree aggravated assault. Video of the incident became publicly available and widely watched. Last week, the NFL responded by suspending Rice for two games.

Public reaction has been negative and loud. A two-game suspension makes it seem like the NFL doesn't consider domestic violence a serious offense. It's easy to look at four-game suspensions for Adderall or marijuana use and conclude that the league considers smoking weed to be worse than KO-ing your girlfriend.

The PR has been devastating for the NFL, which has attempted to reach out to women in recent years, especially with its support of Breast Cancer Awareness month. Here's the thing: for the women I know, domestic violence is a much bigger issue. Well, maybe I should re-phrase that. Everyone takes breast cancer seriously. Most of us know someone who's been affected. But taking a stand against cancer is easy. Nobody supports cancer. The NFL has raised a lot of money for research, but it hasn't really gone out on a limb. It promotes Breast Cancer Awareness month and sells pink jerseys. That's not nothing, but it doesn't make Roger Goodell into Susan B. Anthony.

Most of us know someone who's been affected by domestic violence, too, but many people do not see it as a serious problem. It doesn't always resonate the same way cancer does. Breast cancer transcends sex and gender, but domestic violence is still a women's issue, and men's support for domestic violence or birth control issues are much more indicative of their feminist leanings than the degree of their opposition to breast cancer. The cancer issue is only moving in one direction, and most of us can't directly do anything about it — it's in the hands of the scientists. Domestic violence is something everyone has the power to initiate, and there are more avenues for people who care to make a difference. This one incident, appearing to take domestic violence lightly, has caused more ill will toward the NFL than a thousand pink jerseys can overcome.

Did the NFL screw up? Yes, clearly. From a practical standpoint if nothing else, suspending Ray Rice for two games was a massive error. The league would have been better off issuing no punishment than one perceived as a slap on the wrist. The suspension made headlines. Doing nothing was actually a better PR option, and the league should have known it.

But did the NFL actually punish Rice lightly? I have complained dozens of times about the NFL's weak punishments for serious offenses. Granted, most of those have been on the field. During a game last November, Erik Walden grabbed Delanie Walker's facemask, used it to rip the helmet off Walker's head, hurled the helmet 15 yards downfield, and then head-butted Walker in the face. Walden got a 15-yard penalty but was not ejected, and the league later suspended him for one week.

Brandon Meriweather is the dirtiest player in football, a headhunter who has repeatedly injured opponents. I've argued over and over that the NFL's new "defenseless receiver" policies make it impossible to play defensive back, but Meriweather isn't getting caught up in technicalities, he's out there trying to hurt people. I believe he should be permanently banned from competition. Last season, after Meriweather's third KO of the season, the league suspended him for two games, same as Rice. The suspension was later reduced to one game.

The NFL's approach to player discipline not covered in the drug-testing guidelines is inconsistent, but usually underwhelming. Violence, on-field or off, simply is not treated as a serious problem. Well, check that. Accidentally injuring an opponent is taken very seriously, frequently evoking five-digit fines and suspensions. Fighting, cheap shots, or assault and battery are seldom punished. Hitting an opponent in the head while making a tackle is treated as a more serious problem than punching him in the head between plays, or committing criminal assault off the field.

The U-T San Diego newspaper maintains a database of NFL arrests, which shows that in 2013, 21 of the 32 NFL teams employed a player with a domestic or sexual violence charge. Now, those are charges, not convictions. But the commissioner's office has taken no interest in most of those cases. Unless a player violates drug-testing policy or a coach stands a little too close to the sideline during a nationally televised game, anything goes.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, in a defensive interview attempting to justify Rice's punishment, said that the league has to be consistent. And to be fair, treating violence as a less serious problem than drug use is totally consistent with this commissioner's history.

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