In just one calendar year Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice went from Super Bowl Champion and a fresh exorbitant contract to the 30th best rusher in the NFL–and recent domestic assault charges that will forever shroud his legacy. How significant is the pretext?
“The only way to shake your ghosts is to find them.”
- Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son
Affix a new member to the rolodex of lepers entering the 2014-2015 NFL season. Flip past the Michael Vick’s and Michael Boley’s, and press Ray Rice’s name into the vinyl.
The New York native has made a career out of transcending his generously listed 5-foot-8-inch frame to bruise linebackers and carve the field with hairpin turns. With the innate ability to contort and shimmy and bash, Rice is a steam engine that, over the past year, has been removed of water.
Earlier this week, media outlets exploded with news (and a video yet to be released) that Rice had beaten his fiancée, Janay Palmer, on vacation in Atlantic City. Not only beaten, but rendered unconscious in a casino elevator. Both Rice and his fiancée were arrested and charged with simple assault-domestic violence — they’ve been dating since 2008.
Rice has a clean rap sheet off-field and has been praised as a morally grounded workhorse by both his college and professional coaches, which has some already forgiving the 27-year-old. A few journalists have even moved on to assessing the impact it will have on his brand rather than his child and soon-to-be wife.
What is the reputation of a great athlete worth? Context can most certainly influence a response to trauma, and often does, but can it also be unjustly utilized to thwart culpability? Ray Rice was a monster in that moment, regardless of the context. The headline is a 12-gauge; recoiling is inevitable. Beating someone unconscious is always wrong; the framework is your brain.
When millions watch football, they aren’t probing for clemency. Qualms are ostensibly dismissed on Sundays because violence is the crux of every goal-line stand or any Marshawn Lynch carry ever. It’s pretty safe to assume Baltimore will not release Rice; a suspension appears to be the more likely outcome.
Ray Rice is the best running back in the history of Rutgers University. He holds every individual rushing record with the exception of yards per average, where he’s listed at No. 2 (Steve Simms in 1959-61 is No. 1). Rice rushed for 4,926 yards in only three years, more than 1,700 yards above Terrell Willis, who holds the No. 2 spot. When he won the starting role as a freshman, Rutgers had their first winning season in 25 years. By his junior campaign, he was widely considered to be one of the elite backs in the country and was a candidate for both the Maxwell Award and Heisman Trophy in 2007. It was no surprise that in the aftermath he forwent his senior season.
With the 55th overall pick in the second round of the 2008 NFL Draft, the Ravens picked up a goldmine–destined to shelve Willis McGahee’s trivial late-game minutes. By the start of the 2009 season, Rice had won the starting spot–beating out his predecessor.
The Baltimore epoch of 2012-2013 is now a staple of NFL history, and with it, Ray Rice flourished. In the offseason Rice and Janay had their first child. With a newly minted contract worth $7 million per season, Rice was the No. 11 best rusher in the NFL–accruing nine touchdowns during the regular season. He jolted the Ravens throughout their playoff campaign and hoisted the Lombardi trophy beneath an ocean of purple and black. His conversion on a 4th & 29 against the San Diego Chargers is still occasionally recalled and helped him earn the AFC offensive player of the week award. A child, contract, and championship denoted bliss for Rice.
Then came 2013–a year that Rice clawed his way through. It was his worst year in the league on the backside of a season fit for a Disney picture. Plagued by injuries and a poor offensive line, Rice totaled just 660 yards on 214 attempts. Baltimore was bad, he was worse. Averaging just 3.1 yards per carry, Rice and the Ravens missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
But head coach John Harbaugh supported Rice through the troubling year. In an interview with Ravens staff writer Garrett Downing, Harbaugh stated:
“The numbers weren’t there this year. There are different reasons for that. But nobody works harder than Ray. I’m very confident that when he says he’s going to come back in the best shape of his life and be better than ever, I’m confident that he’s going to do exactly that.”
In a league teeming with violence and testosterone, Rice becomes yet another example of those who fell from grace. Acclaimed for his insatiable work ethic, steel-plated tenacity in the open field, and infectious smile, Rice will now wait as the pejorative commentary turns his halo a different hue.
Does context matter? Is it simply coincidental that Rice’s tumultuous season formed the pretext of a harrowing incident? It almost certainly does. The hope is that this doesn’t become a shield in the coming months. A past unblemished does not vindicate. It does not formulate an acceptable alibi.
It’s nothing new to consider that the media marketing of an event can skew punishment. This isn’t an axiom, but it can at the very least affect a case subliminally. Right now, it’s just too early to know. But the clouded details will eventually turn clear. The context will inevitably sharpen. And all that will be left will be a man with a child, a fiancée, and a love for football.
As ESPN’s Jamison Hensley notes, Rice stated at a charity event in April 2013, “I truly feel like it’s a crime if you back somebody into a corner and they feel defenseless.” Let that be a lesson, context has a nasty habit of changing.