On Thursday, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was suspended for the first two games of the 2014 NFL season, a paltry punishment for a February incident in which he knocked his then-fiancee Janay Palmer unconscious in an Atlantic City, New Jersey, casino.
In a letter to Rice, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell outlined his reasoning for the punishment:
[Y]our 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.
It's laughable that Goodell finds a two-game suspension appropriate for Rice's actions considering the other, longer punishments he's meted out in the past for offenses less severe, less shocking and less violent.
Even worse, however, is the way the Ravens have been handling the incident since it was first reported in the winter. Just as it appears, the NFL as a whole does not take violence against women seriously, and neither do the Ravens.
First there was the bizarre team-hosted press conference with Rice and Palmer, in which both apologized for what had happened. Yes, the woman who had been knocked cold by Rice apologized, essentially, for being hit. Meanwhile, the Ravens' Twitter account was live-tweeting the proceedings.
Now there is the team's reaction to Rice's suspension. General manager Ozzie Newsome said in a statement, "While not having Ray for the first two games is significant to our team, we respect the league's decision and believe it is fair." Head coach John Harbaugh took a significantly more tone-deaf approach.
Harbaugh kicked off his remarks on Rice by saying "it's not a big deal" when asked how the suspension would affect his team.
John Harbaugh starts his statement about Rice: "It's not a big deal."— Sarah Spain (@SarahSpain) July 24, 2014
He then went on to say that the biggest lesson here is that children will now know that actions have consequences.
Harbaugh just said of Rice suspension that he made mistake, paid a consequence, and it's good for kids to understand that it works that way.— SI_DougFarrar (@SI_DougFarrar) July 24, 2014
"It's not a big deal" and "kids can learn from this" are the most important points Harbaugh can make regarding what Rice himself owned up to doing?
The Ravens and Harbaugh could have sent a much stronger message before Goodell even had a chance to rule on the matter. Clubs can take discipline into their own hands, and that's what the team should have done with Rice. And instead of a two-game suspension, he should have been pulled for the entire season or scrubbed from the roster entirely.
Just as there is a double standard in the NFL when it comes to star players committing crimes versus guys lower on the depth chart, there is a double standard when it comes to women. Women as fans are great—it's an ever-growing base from which the league can draw massive sums of money.
But the idea of condemning violence against women committed by NFL players is paid little more than lip service. And removing a starting player from a roster for committing such a crime never seems to happen.
Under the aegis of the Personal Conduct Policy, Goodell can hand out punishments as he sees fit. There are no set guidelines as there are under the Substance Abuse or Banned Substances policies.
With Rice's track record in the community and no history of arrest, it was obvious Goodell was going to hand him a soft punishment despite what he did. The Ravens should have been well aware of that fact themselves. But instead of denouncing Rice's actions, they have stood by and remained supportive of him.
NFL Vice President of Human Resources Robert Gulliver recently spoke to ESPNW's Jane McManus about domestic violence issues in the league and said, "We just simply don't tolerate instances of domestic violence." However, the two-game suspension Rice received seems like the lowest level of intolerance the league could have.
The Ravens could have made an example of Rice to show how much more seriously they take this issue than the NFL has proved to. They could have taken the initiative with a zero-tolerance clubwide policy for domestic violence and been pioneers in what could have become a leaguewide trend.
Instead, the Ravens sat on their hands, waited for Goodell and decided to essentially shrug off what got Rice suspended in the first place. And it's likely every other team in the league would have done the same thing. As Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report points out, 21 of the 32 NFL teams have at least one player on their rosters with domestic violence or sexual violence charges on their records.
The only consequence for Rice will be the loss of nearly $500,000 for a man who made $25 million over the last two years. Harbaugh had his chance to make a difference. Instead, he'd rather call Rice's assault on Palmer, now his wife, a "mistake."
It's not just Goodell who can change the culture in the NFL—it's the coaches as well. But as long as coaches like Harbaugh consider Rice's suspension and the reason for it "not a big deal," the league's domestic violence problem and its response to it will remain a distressing tragedy.