Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Damage control

What makes me uncomfortable about the Ray Rice fiasco isn't that the NFL took so long to act decisively to punish Rice for knocking his then-girlfriend unconscious in an elevator.

I am a big fan of withholding judgment until the facts are known.  There is plenty of time to punish, particularly when incidents occur in the off-season, and to the extent that the NFL is responsible for administering justice, justice comes best when it comes slowly but surely.

Of course, the NFL isn't responsible for administering justice.  That belongs to the authorities in New Jersey, where the incident took place.

What the NFL is responsible for is administering its own image.  This is essentially a matter of public relations.  Not for Rice and his wife, or the people of New Jersey (who of course have an interest in the criminal aspects of what took place)--although the video that was publicly released yesterday makes this a PR issue for Rice as well.  But for the NFL, which is an organization that depends on public goodwill for its continued financial success, doing something to Ray Rice for throwing that punch is about good public relations.

(We aren't to the uncomfortable part yet.  Hang on.)

I am glad that the NFL has been forced to shine the light on domestic violence and to adopt policies that promote awareness of the issues and discourage it from occurring.  This is something that needs doing.  It's true that domestic violence disproportionately affects women.  It's also true that football is a violent sport predicated on using your body as a weapon to impede others' progress, knocking them down to stop them from achieving their goals.

We might expect that individuals of great physical stature, who work in a violent environment, would tend at greater rates than the general public to carry that violence home.  I have no idea whether that's the case or not; there is a counterweight to that, and that is that these individuals are in the public eye, and many if not most of them are conscious that to be seen beating up on women is detrimental to their own public image.

But the raising of this issue has given the NFL an opportunity to demonstrate that it is a good corporate citizen by using the heft of its popularity to increase the cost to those who would perpetrate domestic violence.

When Roger Goodell and others say they hadn't seen the elevator video (which showed that Rice instigated the physical contact and dealt a devastating punch to his girlfriend when she reacted) before yesterday, I believe them.

Where I don't believe them is when they say they didn't understand what had occurred until seeing the video.

The truth is that the NFL--and specifically the Baltimore Ravens, who supported Rice throughout this incident until that support became untenable--already knew that Rice's girlfriend entered the elevator under her own power, that there was an altercation, and that she exited the elevator, unconscious, by being dragged bodily out by her assailant.  Reasonable jurors faced with the evidence the NFL had might disagree that there was enough evidence to conclude that Rice was criminally guilty.  But the NFL had everything it needed to punish him.

So what happened yesterday was that the release of the video meant that the NFL hadn't realized until yesterday just how vicious this attack looked on video, and how it needed to take more significant action to avoid a public relations nightmare.  It's not clear that this will be enough.

(Still not to the uncomfortable part yet.)

Which is fine.  The NFL is all about public relations.  It's not what happened; it's how what happened looks.

The cardinal rule of public relations is this:  "Deny that which cannot be admitted; admit that which cannot be denied."

And the NFL is playing the public relations game.

(Now we're to the uncomfortable part.)

Yesterday, the White House put out a statement about what's happened.  It reads:
The President is the father of two daughters. And like any American, he believes that domestic violence is contemptible and unacceptable in a civilized society. Hitting a woman is not something a real man does, and that's true whether or not an act of violence happens in the public eye, or, far too often, behind closed doors. Stopping domestic violence is something that's bigger than football - and all of us have a responsibility to put a stop to it.
For some reason, the part I've italicized, which has been repeated endlessly, makes me uncomfortable.  There is something that's more than a little sexist about it.  I get that men often have a physical advantage over women; generally, we're larger, more muscular, and more aggressive than women.  And it's certainly true that men commit more acts of domestic violence, and more damaging acts, than do women.  There are women who commit domestic violence against men, but it's not just that.  (EDIT:  There are also women who commit domestic violence against women, and men against men.)

I suppose what I have a problem with is that "Resolving your problems using violence is not something that a civilized person does" would be a much better statement to make.

Of course, I can see why President Obama, or any president, would be reluctant to make that statement, since our recent history is littered with examples of using violence to solve our geopolitical problems.

So I'll take it as it was intended.  If it moves people away from domestic violence, that's a good thing.

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