Go back in time, to a casino and an elevator. Ray Rice emerges with a woman in his arms. She's motionless as he hauls her out of the elevator, like she's a sack of potatoes, and drops her body to the ground. Plop. Rice grabs her purse and some shoes—can't forget those. But the elevator won't shut because her feet are blocking it because, you know, she's unconscious.
The woman was Rice's then-fiancee, and the video was one of the more disturbing you will see when it comes to domestic violence. We hear about players beating up women. We see the aftermath, the broken bodies of the women, the court cases, the details in print. But this…this was on tape. We actually got to see the direct aftermath with our own eyes, and it was as terrifying as we thought it would be.
Most across the league thought the punishment for Rice would be severe. Half a season, at least. After all, though Rice's lawyer spewed some mealy-mouth hypothetical bile to explain why a tiny woman was beat the hell up by a 206-pound NFL player, the aftermath was on tape. No way Rice would get off easy. No. Way.
Yet on Thursday it was announced that Rice was suspended just two games. Two games. For that.
Rice will also be fined $58,000, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. Over the past two seasons, he made approximately $25 million. It's like Rice punched a woman in the face, and in response the NFL wagged a finger at him before sending him off with two free tickets to Guardians of the Galaxy.
The message here is clear: Ladies, we like that you watch football. We like that you buy NFL merchandise. We love that you give us your money, but if one of our players punches you in the face, well, hell—sorry, but you are on your own, homegirl. This is yet another signal that the NFL doesn't care nearly enough about domestic violence. This may be the best signal yet.
As former Saints player Scott Fujita tweeted:
The message to my wife & 3 daughters today? The business that's been such a big part of our life, really doesn't give a f**k about you.— Scott Fujita (@sfujita55) July 24, 2014
According to U-T San Diego's database, and first pointed out to me by a Twitter follower, 21 of 32 NFL teams last year employed a player with a domestic and/or sexual violence charge on their record. I don't know how this compares to other sports, and it doesn't really matter. What matters is that the NFL is the country's most popular sport, and that number is simply unacceptable.
Former NFL receiver Derrick Mason added to the conversation with this tweet:
Does the NFL value women? Is that better grammar police? If you look at every DV case the NFL has been very lenient when it come to suspen.— Derrick Mason (@deemason85) July 24, 2014
This is getting so bad that we may be reaching a tipping point where the mighty NFL starts to lose fans over this issue, female fans in particular. This has never happened before. Fans have never stopped following football because of off-the-field incidents. So far, fans' loyalty has cocooned the NFL and acted like a force field, protecting its ratings and popularity.
Maybe that doesn't change. Maybe it remains business as usual, but at some point this issue will catch up to football. It's only a matter of time. Particularly when there is video of a player dragging a knocked-out woman from an elevator.
This tweet from Smart Football editor and Grantland contributor Chris Brown certainly makes you think:
NFL suspended Terrelle Pryor for five games for getting free stuff in college and declaring for the supplemental draft. Ray Rice 2 games..?— Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball) July 24, 2014
The perception part of this is troubling. I know it's not fair to compare domestic violence to, say, a player being suspended for smoking pot—the drug policy is set and negotiated with the union, while commissioner Roger Goodell has the final say on issues like domestic violence—but the optics look terrible. Smoke pot or take HGH, and you get suspended for a year. Knock a woman out cold, and you get just two games.
The reaction from team executives we talked to was shock. Most expected Rice's suspension to last well into the season. One team personnel man said when he heard about the two-game suspension, he went back to look at that horrid casino footage, to make sure he remembered it correctly. No one I spoke with around the sport could understand why the suspension was so light. The best they could do was speculate.
The smartest person I know associated with professional football, a former high-ranking team executive, theorized the Rice punishment was soft because it provides cover for a potentially light suspension of Jim Irsay. If the suspension of Rice was severe, the theory goes, and Irsay's, by comparison, isn't, the league would be accused of protecting ownership.
To show the amount of delusion some in football have on the subject of domestic violence, Ravens coach John Harbaugh told reporters that Rice's suspension shows he made a mistake and paid a price, and the message to kids is a good one because it shows bad actions have consequences.
You cannot make this up. You just cannot.
Here's what Goodell wrote in his letter to Rice:
As you acknowledged during our meeting, your conduct was unquestionably inconsistent with league polices and the standard of behavior required of everyone who is part of the NFL. The league is an entity that depends on integrity and in the confidence of the public and we simply cannot tolerate conduct that endangers others or reflects negatively on our game. This is particularly true with respect to domestic violence and other forms of violence against women.
You will be expected to continue to take advantage of the counseling and other professional services you identified during our meeting. As you noted, this additional assistance has been of significant benefit to you and your wife, and it should remain a part of your practice as appropriate.
I believe that you are sincere in your desire to learn from this matter and move forward toward a healthy relationship and successful career. I am now focused on your actions and expect you to demonstrate by those actions that you are prepared to fulfill those expectations.
That's not the message. The truer message is this:
If you're an NFL player, and you beat up a woman, don't worry. You'll get a pop on the knuckles. A tsk, tsk.
So carry on.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.