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Rice penalty: NFL sends wrong message to women


The NFL sent a message with its latest disciplinary move, suspending Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice because of a domestic incident that it deems to be a violation of its personal conduct policy.

Unfortunately, the recipients of Commissioner Roger Goodell’s message are women.

Rice was suspended the first two games of the season after a February incident in which he allegedly knocked his then-fiancée unconscious in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino. The incident was captured on disturbing video, and Rice entered a not-guilty plea to a third-degree charge of aggravated assault. He avoided trial by being accepted into a pretrial intervention program in May.

The following month, he met with Goodell, who can use the league’s personal-conduct policy to suspend players even if they are not charged or convicted of a crime.

The suspension sparked an instant and heated debate over how the league dishes out punishment, given that drug violations typically draw longer suspensions. It particularly resonated poorly with women, sending the wrong message just as NFL viewership among them is at a high and when the league is, once again, openly courting the audience of women and their financial clout. At a time when some women employed as cheerleaders are suing teams in several cities over low wages, the suspension especially strikes another oddly off-key note for a league that has always been better at PR than this.

In fact, the NFL would do well to remember that women haven’t always flocked to its games.

The league embarked on an image makeover, doing things like having players hand out roses to women at breast cancer walks. Now, in addition to clothing specifically designed for and marketed to women (yes, there’s a Ray Rice women’s jersey), there’s a leaguewide initiative to raise breast cancer awareness every October. Yet recent incidents involving Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy, Arizona linebacker Daryl Washington and Rice are troubling.

They’re also dangerous, with Scarborough Research finding that women represent about 45 percent of the NFL’s fans and almost 33 percent of the its viewing audience, based on Nielsen data reported by Sports Business Daily last fall. Women, Ann Bastianelli of Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business told ESPNW, make 70 percent of “important family decisions.”

The NFL might have thought that its punishment would not be controversial, despite that shocking casino video of the Rice incident, and it handled it rather nonchalantly, as did Ravens Coach John Harbaugh initially at training camp Thursday.

“It’s not a big deal, it’s just part of the process. ... there are consequences when you make a mistake like that,” Harbaugh said. “I stand behind Ray. He’s a heck of a guy. He’s done everything right since. He makes a mistake, all right? He’s going to have to pay a consequence. I think that’s good for kids to understand it works that way. That’s how it works, that’s how it should be.”

Rice released a statement in which he said: “It is disappointing that I will not be with my teammates for the first two games of the season, but that’s my fault. I failed in many ways. But Janay and I have learned from this. We have become better as a couple and as parents. I am better because of everything we have experienced since that night. The counseling has helped tremendously. My goal is to earn back the trust of the people, especially the children I let down because of this incident. I am a role model and I take that responsibility seriously. My actions going forward will show that.”

Mark Schlereth, a former player and now an ESPN commentator, agreed with those who felt the punishment was insufficient.

“I didn’t think it was long enough. I didn’t think it was stiff enough,” he said. “Suspensions for drugs and PEDs performance-enhancing drugs were longer. We’ve seen on-the-field conduct suspensions be longer than that.”

The NFL has work to do, and it’s going to take more than pink cleats in October to fix this.