Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Ray Rice and the Monolith

Ray Rice deserved this suspension in February. He got it Monday.

TMZ's release of the Ray Rice footage had one crucial consequence: it turned a hypothetical into a definite. As many have pointed out, what was on the video didn't reveal anything we didn't already know. Janay Palmer entered the elevator conscious and was unceremoniously dragged out of it unconscious. Rice entered the elevator conscious and left it remorselessly shuttling his limp fiancee's body out. She switched from active to passive voice; he did not.

There really aren’t any extenuating circumstances to that story, there can't be. Ray Rice has been paid millions of dollars to take abuse from men nearly twice his size, to use his muscular and explosive body to elude them, even to dish out punishment to those giants and to do it well. Whether his fiancee provoked him or not, Rice’s reaction was unconscionable and sickening. He beat the ever-living shit out of her, and we knew this in February. (I could do without the pandering a man should never hit a woman angle. Maybe just don't assault people in general.) The tape was nothing but visceral confirmation and now Rice is out of a job, probably for a long time.
It’s doubtful the public will ever know for sure whether Goodell or higher-ups in the NFL saw the full tape in their initial investigation, but the prevailing sentiment seems to run along the same lines: if Goodell didn’t see the tape the NFL is (perhaps willfully) incompetent, if he did then the NFL is monstrous. The NFL’s current excuse that they asked for the footage and were denied reeks of bullshit. Maybe the investigators should have had Jon Gruden in the interrogation room. He always watches the tape. Now here’s a guy who’s a piece of shit!

(By the way, whatever dude-bro-y CONTENT site puts up a faux-telestrator version of the elevator footage can die a fiery death. That video will probably get 300,000 likes on Facebook.)

I think Goodell saw the tape, but the lax punishment he handed down wasn’t some act of monstrous indifference toward humanity. It was a complete failure borne of misdirected empathy. Goodell saw a contrite Rice and saw Rice’s wife (horrifyingly, as interrogation protocol goes, sitting next to him) asking for both of their forgiveness. He wanted to give Rice the chance to get his career in order, and he let the NFL’s information lackeys insinuate and slander Palmer to do so. Goodell, in essence, had empathy for the abuser above the abused and a complete misunderstanding of how those relationships work. This is not too far from the line of reasoning that protects a monster like Jerry Sandusky because to report him would be to upend his comfortable, established life no matter how many he'd destroyed.

Goodell was simply Protecting The Shield. With a 2-game suspension and a public apology, Rice’s story could get spun through the Riley Cooper Redemption Machine. The Ravens would celebrate Rice as a returning hero and this would be painted as an “incident” to “grow from.” Ray Lewis probably murdered a guy and he just got a statue in Baltimore. Rice could come back from this.

The innuendo, the slander - Adam Schefter going on TV saying the punishment may not have been lenient enough because those in the know had seen something exonerating on tape - allowed doubt about Rice’s culpability and criminality to creep in. It built a narrative that he could overcome. Sure Rice probably could have stayed away from the falling down/getting back up metaphors in press conferences next to his wife, but he was on his way to that sweet promise. TMZ brought that crashing down.

Hypothetical became real. Rice became a pariah.

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The NFL has a conflicted relationship with information. Outside of Congress, it's probably the most covered entity in the United States (one could argue that my rankings are backward). In recent years, an entire cottage industry has sprung up devoted to gambling and fantasy sports and news gathering, supported entirely by the massive humming machine that is the NFL. Let’s throw it to Matthew Berry who’s here to tell us whom to buy - LeVeon Bell is a good candidate for the Doritos™ Spicy Performer of the Week! - and whom to sell - drop Joe Flacco as worry-free as I drop my armor-plated phone, the Samsung™Enrager!

The names are essentially interchangeable. Outside of a small subset of players (almost all quarterbacks, almost all white), the NFL is distinguished first and foremost in its institutional indifference to those actors in pads.

In presenting the game this way, the NFL gets its fans to care about these players as simple data points, as characters who can be reduced to yards and touchdowns and fumbles. Meanwhile the game itself is all war-metaphor spectacle, with a rather obvious head-injury problem and non-guaranteed contracts, but whose collateral can be counted in yards and touchdowns and fumbles. What does Reggie Bush’s pulled hamstring mean for you, the viewer?

Players, of course, can't be reduced to mere data points, much as most head coaches wish they could. They have lives. They have context. This is not always easy to reconcile with the transactional way they are discussed in NFL media.

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If Roger Goodell’s job is just to make the owners ungodly sums of money, then he has wildly succeeded. The NFL can't stop raking in the dough. The NFL is inextricable from American culture. It is the Bradbury-an nightmare of entertainment as addictive, immersive opiate (yes, I have described the Red Zone Channel as “like crack”). It has its own channel. SiriusXM has a station devoted just to fantasy NFL. The draft now takes roughly 93 hours and many, many people watch just to see information they could find on the internet immediately. The game sells raging American id - which Kid Rock has proven will make money regardless of talent - and if people would just ignore any semblance of humanity toward the players, it would do so ad infinitum.

The NFL is a monolith. It breaks free from the tautology of the other sports leagues, becoming basically Donald Sterling's ideal: the players don’t make up the NFL, the NFL makes up the NFL. Goodell leveraging the league into a constant in the American psyche (along with gargantuan TV deals) has a lot to do with this.

In nearly every non-fiscal way, though, Goodell's commissionership has been an unmitigated disaster: his handling of concussions, Bounty-Gate (which he so completely bungled his predecessor had to overturn the damage), the referee lockout and Fail Mary, the salary cap fines levied for an uncapped year, inconsistent suspensions based American Reconstruction-style on how much the player groveled, post-facto rule enforcement and on and on and on. At some point these mistakes may reach a critical mass. Goodell's tenure has been marked by reactionary moves with little eye toward the fans or the players yet ever-soaring profit margins. Of course Rice's indefinite suspension was about optics - everything Goodell does is with that in mind. He just seems to be terrible at it.

The ultimate taboo in the league is to be a distraction. Goodell has made a career of it.

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At least six eyewitnesses say they saw Michael Brown’s hands in the air when Darren Wilson shot him. The Ferguson PD had money for officer cameras but chose not to spend it (they splurged on SWAT gear instead) so we don't know for sure what happened. One month later, Wilson has not been arrested. He was not named for a week nor were the witnesses questioned for days after the shooting. Since then, Brown has been slandered much like Palmer was. In the absence of irrefutable truth, those with agendas will fill the vacuum. The citizens demanded accountability from their police force and elected officials. They didn't quite get it.

In Ferguson, hypothetical is as good as we're going to get. Hypothetical, plus some shoddy investigative work, leaves room for Support Darren Wilson and Michael Brown Was A Gangbanger as if that could matter. As if it could matter whether Palmer physically attacked Rice before he decked her. As if six games is better than two games suspension when the problem is violence toward women, not the moral fiber of a sports league.

The NFL isn't Ferguson and Goodell isn't law enforcement, nor is he obligated to act as such. Ultimately, though, Rice is in trouble today because he got caught on video. We could no longer defer to party line, to the entrenched power dynamics at play. It's a suspension about optics (though the league is such a self-sustaining monolith that optics hardly matter) but it's also the right thing to do.

The question I keep coming back to is whether anything we can do matters when it comes to the monolith, to either one. The people of Ferguson took to the streets. They were teargassed and arrested en masse. Ultimately, the state budged - but barely (and with a similar misdirected eye toward optics). Here the NFL budged, but not to solve any of its underlying problems. People were as up in arms as I've seen in a long time. They got a condescending nod toward someone listening. These situations are not the same but they aren't too different either.

It's possible people will stop watching football, but I doubt it. It's possible substantive change will come to policing in America, but I doubt it. Jefferson said there should be a revolution every twenty years. He couldn't have anticipated the sheer size, the magnitude, the Leviathan. Revolution used to be easier. Ferguson is mostly back to normalcy. No doubt many of those citizens will sit down this weekend with one main thought: are you ready for some football.

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