This week, a scandal resurfaced surrounding Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice in reference to the video of him dragging his unconscious fiancee from an elevator. The fiancee, Janay Palmer, wasn’t unconscious from a night of binge drinking in Atlantic City, where the altercation occurred. She was unconscious because, while on the elevator, Rice punched her. Hard enough to knock her out. Hard enough to render her unconscious for an unknown amount of time surrounding the 56 second video clip.
The assault happened in February. Since then, Rice has been in and out of court and mostly outside the eye of the general non-sports-watching public. But the reason this six-month-old assault is catching the nation’s attention now is twofold: first, with NFL training camps beginning, Rice called a press conference in which he apologized (a follow-up to a similar though unsatisfactory press conference he held in May); second, the NFL finally handed down a punishment they deemed suitable for a man who so besmirched the name of the Baltimore Ravens. Ray Rice was suspended for two games and will have his pay withheld for a third, costing him roughly $529,411 in lost wages (although when you take home millions of dollars each year, how much does half a mil really hurt?).
In the video apology, he seems genuine, his face expressing real pain at what he’s done and how his actions have affected his loved ones. I want to believe that this was a one-time thing, as Rice says. But I also know that roughly one in three people arrested for domestic abuse will be re-arrested for the same within two years. And I know from experience that a significant other will often tolerate sustained abuse before seeking help in a way that will harm their abuser. So we may never know if he was serious in his apology, and we may never know if it was truly a first offense.
While Rice is the only person truly competent to determine his sincerity, I still wonder, how much leniency does the court of public opinion owe a man who confronted this issue publicly only after being caught on tape? He is now among the ranks of famous abusers living in front of a camera. Of course, I think Rice should be looked on more favorably than Chris Brown, who not only got caught assaulting a fellow celebrity and has continued the pattern in frequent violations of his probation, but who also got a prominent tattoo “not” meant to depict a post-assault Rihanna on the side of his neck. Yes, Brown also apologized, but the apology had a distinctive aftertaste of advice from his legal and PR teams, and of course, it was followed up by more violence. While Rice will always have to live with having hit his fiancee, he has thus far done the decent thing of, well, not doing it again.
But where is the line? A pattern of continued abuse is obviously condemnable (although Chris Brown still has a loyal following). And really, any singular act of physical violence, especially against a significant other, is despicable. So where do we draw the line? When do we determine that an individual, whose career depends upon appealing to the public, is no longer worth supporting?
That much isn’t clear.
The problem with this, aside from the obvious domestic violence crisis, is that because such public figures’ livelihoods depends upon continued support from the general public, the public (read: you, me, and everyone we know) must have and act on an opinion in order to make any changes. It is our responsibility to draw the line.
Ray Rice was suspended for two games. As Jon Stewart so poignantly pointed out, the NFL’s suspension for players caught smoking weed is four games. If the punishment is supposed to fit the crime, then it appears that the NFL considers domestic violence half as serious as smoking pot. Yep, the National Football League is more willing to condemn the use of a substance that is legal in some form in nearly half of the country than it is to condemn actual violence against actual humans.
If you believe that the NFL was too lenient with him, then perhaps your way of demonstrating that could be boycotting five games to show that violence against women is much more serious than hitting a bong. If you don’t wish to support the lifestyle of violent recidivist Chris Brown, stop watching his videos and buying his music. If celebrities can be horrible people and still make lots of money and have throngs of adoring fans, they will continue to be horrible people.
This is not an attempt to continue a cycle of abuse, to ensure that all famous abusers die in abject poverty and shame. It is the only way to make it clear to abusers that, if they are going to profit off of your support, they must, at the bare minimum, be decent human beings. Celebrities, whether they be athletes or musicians or movie stars or famous racist chefs, are someone’s (and more likely many people’s) role model. They demonstrate the standard society has set for acceptable, even laudable behavior. As a society, it is our duty to ensure that the role our celebrities set is worth following.
Where you draw the line for acceptable is entirely up to you.