Last September, when the unavoidably shocking video
finally surfaced of Ray Rice knocking out then-fiancée Janay Palmer in an Atlantic City casino elevator, it brought a swift end to his career with the Baltimore Ravens, and, one hoped, his time in the national spotlight altogether. Strangely enough, though, that’s not the way these things work. Which is why, nearly eight months after the video’s release and more than a year after the February 2014 attack itself, it’s been unsurprising to see Rice’s name back in the news, with a cabal of publicists, crisis managers, and, unfortunately, journalists working hard to get him back in the public’s good graces.
Last week, an odd new leg of Rice’s Apology Tour hit the print circuit. New York ran a feature entitled “Ray Rice’s Redemption Campaign” that tries to be coy from the top down but largely fails; meanwhile, Men’s Fitness offered “Ray Rice in Exile,” which paints Rice as a god shunned from Olympus, a newfound plebe (and free agent) trying to stay in shape during the offseason without the benefit of league trainers. As a Baltimore native and lifelong Ravens fan who couldn’t care less whether the guy ever plays again, it was bizarre to see any pointedly sympathetic story run on Rice, let alone two in one week, both focused on his efforts to restore his reputation with a national audience. (Especially given that he hadn’t performed that well in the previous season to begin with.)
Both pieces were written by men. Both pieces, logging in at several thousand words each, tout an exclusive interview with the running back—the first since his brief appearance on the Today Show late last year, back when Rice appeared at the end of Matt Lauer’s interview with the family in the now-married couple’s New Rochelle residence. Both struggle to seriously address the reason why this is a story at all—an act of domestic violence so viscerally horrifying that Rice and Palmer claim to have never watched it on tape—and instead prefer to paint a picture of a normal, hardworking young man whose life has been shattered by a single, reflexive lapse of judgment.
Now, a week after these stories first hit magazine stands, talk of Rice’s scandal and redemption is once again old news; we’ve all gone back to gawking at Aaron Hernandez . It’s weird that, once again, the only deep insight we have into the minds of the people involved with this particular scandal has been effectively sensationalized and then discarded and forgotten as some new public horror reveals itself. In turn, these fluff pieces end up serving as the Last Word on Rice’s rehabilitation, nothing more than perfectly timed pamphlets on the free agent’s character, available for review when the NFL Draft picks up later this month.
The most unsettling thing about these stories, however, is that they continue the media’s pattern of maximizing Rice’s voice while minimizing his victim’s. Palmer’s lines—she goes by Janay Rice now, but we’ll use her maiden name here for ease of distinction—are all but scripted; instead, these stories focus on the damage done to Rice’s career while dancing around the likelihood that his wife has far graver issues to deal with. Neither story reveals any significant new information regarding the elevator attack or its PR-disaster aftermath, nor do they reveal any definite plans for Rice’s future.
With the most pertinent evidence in this whole sad affair available for anyone and everyone to see, what exactly is the point of these stories? What’s left to report? What do you do when you’re a journalist with a high-profile public figure and nothing new to write about him? You start to weave a story. And, in this case, focusing on the restorative trials of a potentially abusive football player is the easiest, if most dangerous, way to do it. Especially when it requires glossing over the most important person in the room.
I’ll say it: I’m more interested in hearing about—and hearing from, without the influence of others—the unconscious woman whose limp body was dragged out of an elevator face-down last year. What’s going on with Janay Rice?
We’ve heard from her a few times in the aftermath of that night, of course, but at least initially, most reports were nothing more than a collection of rumors delivered by shouting sports anchors likely relying on NFL sources motivated by self-interest . When the Baltimore Sun first broke the story last February, they reported that Rice and Palmer had been in a “minor physical altercation” after a night of drinking, and that the two were arrested for minor domestic assault after they “struck each other with their hands,” while also managing to mention that Rice was “especially active in anti-bullying campaigns” in the city. Sports-specific media skewed more obviously in Rice’s favor: ESPN NFL reporter Chris Mortenson suggested that Palmer “attacked” Rice before he struck her and she fell unconscious after hitting her head on a rail. Elsewhere, First Take panelist Stephen A. Smith discussed the importance of a woman’s “responsibility to avoid provocation” and the necessity for women to “try to prevent the situation from happening in any way.” He later apologized, but the damage was already done.
As pundits speculated on what happened that night, Rice and Palmer were undergoing sudden, serious life changes: They went away, we’re told, for a couples-counseling retreat the week after their arrests, and returned with the announcement that they were moving up their wedding date from June to March 28th. (By happy coincidence, that was the day after Ray’s indictment on charges of aggravated assault.) Then, when the newly married Janay Rice spoke publicly for the first time in May, it was on the back of these nationally spread news items, and at a press conference arranged by the NFL.
She sat a foot or two away from her new husband, who apologized to the city of Baltimore and Ravens fans for “the situation my wife and I are in” while assuring them that “I really treat my job as a very special job.” His wife, the woman he could have easily killed had that one punch turned into two or three, was not directly addressed in his apology. Palmer stared at the ground, her hands clasped in front of her, looking ashamed and ready to burst into tears. When she did speak onstage, flanked by NFL and Ravens executives and with the Rice family sitting in the front row, she had this to say:
I do deeply regret the role that I played in the incident that night, but I can say that I am happy that we continue to work through it together, and we are continuing to strengthen our relationship and our marriage and do what we have to for not only ourselves collectively, but individually, and working on being better parents for [their daughter] Rayven and continue to be good role models for the community like we were doing before this. I love Ray, and I know that he will continue to prove himself to not only you all, but the community, and I know he will gain your respect back in due time.
The idea that Palmer was in some way responsible or “provoked” what happened only benefitted the NFL, who didn’t question her alone even once, but instead asked her to attend a disciplinary hearing between Rice and league commissioner Roger Goodell. That day, she sat in a room with four men, including the man who hit her, while the group negotiated the severity of Rice’s actions and the future of his career, which would in turn affect their young daughter Rayven’s livelihood. (As our Diana Moskovitz pointed out, putting Palmer in that position was totally insane , given that there’s no way she would have felt safe to speak freely under those circumstances.)
Over the past year, Palmer has been kept on a tight leash, carefully monitored and augmented by the Redemption Tour clan that surrounds her even when she’s allowed to speak for herself. In November, during her first interview following the press conference, she told ESPN’s Jemele Hill that the first thing Rice did after leaving the police station in New Jersey on the night of their arrest was to call his manager and the Ravens’ legal team to inform them of the night’s events (including the likelihood that the assault had been recorded) and ask how they could keep the matter private. Though Rice’s team promised the couple they’d try to prevent the video from leaking, they couldn’t guarantee anything. They could, however, help the pair deal with the press.
New York’s profile reveals that Rice’s team’s solution was to call on hotshot New York publicist Matthew Hiltzik, a brilliant sleazeball who has made a career out of celebrity-based crisis management, with clients including Justin Bieber (during his 2011 paternity scare) and Alec Baldwin (who shouted homophobic slurs at a New York Post reporter). But the story fails to mention another football scandal Hitzik got caught up in: He arranged for another former client, Katie Couric, to land the first big post-controversy interview with our old friend Manti Te’o . Then there’s Bill Cosby, whom Hiltzik dropped after he became convinced that “there were so many competing voices offering conflicting tactical advice that he couldn’t be effective.” Manipulating several dozen female voices accusing one man of rape was, presumably, far more difficult than defending one act of domestic abuse committed by someone who has an “aggressive” profession. That’s how the psychologist quoted in Josh Dean’s Men’s Fitness piece qualified the actions of Rice, by the way:
If your whole life you’re trained to be aggressive, other things tend to come with that,” says Jonathan Fader, a leading sports psychologist who works with professional athletes (though not Rice). “Their job is to be aggressive.”
See? He couldn’t help himself!
Easily the most unsettling part of this year-long saga is the role that the media has played in helping Hiltzik (and, by default, Rice) narrate Palmer’s story. It’s exhausting to see publications so thirsty for a scoop that they’re willing to concede a significant amount of editorial control and voice. For one thing, in Palmer’s three biggest interviews to date—for ESPN, The Today Show, and the initial NFL press conference—she, the victim, has never been interviewed without someone else present, a strict design of the couple’s shared publicist. (It’s unclear whether she was interviewed alone for New York’s story, though the author mentions having “hours of conversation with both Ray and Janay that night in Ray’s mother’s home and over the next few weeks.”)
Alongside the constant presence of her mother—presumably there to reflect Palmer’s role as the matriarch of her own family—are Rice’s behind-the-scenes squad of image consultants. His manager, myriad NFL and (at least initially) Ravens executives, and the couple’s shared publicist are said to be constantly on hand for “support” and editorial guidance during Palmer’s press opportunities. While Rice is generally not present for these interviews, they most frequently take place in their home, often right before he’s about to return. While that’s not uncommon, it’s especially icky that the person in charge of shaping her story also represents her abuser. In redeeming one client—the one with all the money—Rice’s team has to help muzzle the other.
This includes even Hill’s two-hour interview with Palmer, which the reporter later said took place while Hiltzik, Rice’s manager, and Palmer’s mother were in the room. Palmer (or, more likely, her “team”) was given full editorial control, including the final edit of the published piece, which painted Palmer and Rice as a young couple in love who suffered from the same pre-marital stresses as anyone, from Valentine’s Day annoyances to baby diapers. (Both the ESPN and New York interviews specifically cast Palmer’s annoyance over spending Valentine’s Day with others as petty-woman whining, and Rice’s unwillingness to change diapers as the sort of typical clueless husbandry that frequently bugged her.) The magazine reveals that Palmer became friends with Rice when she was 14, began dating him at 15, moved to Baltimore for college when he was signed to the Ravens, and refers to Rice’s NFL affiliates as “family.”
When she appeared on The Today Show a week later, in December—Palmer’s one other interview of note—she was accompanied, once again, by her mother. The segment opens with Janay apologizing again for “the incident,” before addressing the earlier apology she gave to Ravens fans at the NFL press conference months earlier, describing the affair:
It was something that Ray put together … I was ready to do anything that would help the situation … I wanted to help the way we look in the media, help his image. I was fine with it.
As with Palmer’s direct statements regarding that night, last week’s magazine articles are unnerving because they treat Rice as a victim, betrayed by the couple’s true family (the Ravens and the NFL) over an altercation that Palmer, too, allegedly bears responsibility and blame for, simply by arguing with her fiancé that night. When she talks in detail about her assault and the chaos that followed, Palmer never appears to be angry or confused—while she’s frustrated to the point of tears at the idea of being called a “victim,” she’s very rarely emotional about recollecting the visceral facts of that night. Her stories are focused on Ray’s redemption, instead of her own survival. It is taken as a given that nothing like this could ever happen again. “There is no next time,” Janay’s mother, Candy Palmer, stated firmly as Lauer questioned her daughter. “I didn’t raise a young woman to be an abused woman.”
And, yes, for all we know, the night that Rice squarely slugged his longtime girlfriend in the head, knocked her out cold, and dragged her immobile body out of a casino elevator was indeed a one-time event that, to the detriment of Rice’s career, just happened to be caught on tape. But what’s truly mind-boggling is why publications are so interested in defending Rice and knowingly perpetuating a deeply disturbed misunderstanding of abuse to their readers.
If we take a look at that Men’s Fitness article, Dean’s most enlightening moment is admitting to his wife that he’s bothered by the fact that he finds Rice to be so “believable”; he blames the “ghastly newsreel images of him in the elevator, the case’s incredible weight, and the intense societal pressure to hate Ray Rice in perpetuity” for his nagging guilt about liking the guy so much. He also paints a picture of Rice as a man driven to the edge by shame and loss:
“I was on the brink of—I didn’t know whether it was worth living anymore,” he tells me after the boot camp, his voice nearly a whisper. “I see why people commit suicide.” I couldn’t tell if Rice meant that he actually considered killing himself; what was apparent was that he at least reached a point where the option made some sense to him.
And then it comes, the Carrie Bradshaw kicker framed to neatly tie up this forgivable little relationship faux pas:
I can’t help but wonder: If his own wife can forgive him, and the old lawyer who sees him at the gym every day can forgive him, if the accomplished mother who trains alongside him every Thursday can forgive him, should it be so impossible for the rest of us?
That New York’s profile, written by Steve Fishman, hinges on reminding you how tongue-in-cheek it is makes it all the more infuriating. It’s an advertorial laced with quips intended to show that, hey, the writer isn’t buying into everything he’s being shilled, either. The profile opens with Rice at home, entering a near-hypnotic state as he describes his surreal, suburban life as a free agent unlikely to be picked up for next season:
This is normal,” he later said emphatically about the family scene. “Normal.” He’d say the word 13 times that night, in just an hour at the house, like it was a mantra, giving some kind of reassurance.
Nevertheless, a suggestive subtext runs throughout: We hear about Rice’s rough childhood, his father’s death, and his light envy of Palmer’s relative privilege and stable home. We hear about Rice’s extensive charity work (the word “hero” is used), and Palmer’s despair as she struggled with the “zombie” state she entered while being a housewife and mother while her husband served as the family’s sole provider. We hear about Rice’s willingness to rejoin a team, any team, for the league-minimum salary of close to a million dollars a season. A photo spread that accompanies the story pictures Palmer in a pink blouse leaning on Rice’s shoulder (he wears blue) with her wedding ring glittering on her hand between them.
As for the fateful night of February 15, 2014, those details are recounted with a strange sense of nonchalance. We once again learn that Palmer was annoyed about sharing Valentine’s Day weekend Rice’s family and friends (there’s that petty-girlfriend framing again), and how she gave her fiancée the silent treatment in protest; we learn that Rice was “on a cleanse” (ha!) and that a few alcoholic drinks made him vomit, so low was his tolerance on that particular evening. We also learn that since then, therapy has helped Rice learn that some of the demons that made him lash out that night stem from the fact that he hasn’t yet learned how to love himself. In a wildly unusual case, Rice’s therapist (an ex-football player himself) is called upon and quoted in the New York piece, describing the fatherless Rice as “one of his sons.” Given the circumstances, the whole thing gets a little uncomfortable.
“Dr. Ball was the first person that made me open up about my past,” Rice said. “It was the first time I felt, Man, I’m not hiding anymore!” They talked about Rice’s childhood, and Rice felt he had a revelation. “I forgot about the pain and agony that I had to go through growing up, the stuff that my mom went through. Stuff that I had to bear as a kid,” he explained. “The thing that kids did growing up — I didn’t have that childhood,” Rice told me. “I had to provide. That was my life from 13 to 28. I’m still providing. It was scary.” Ball told Rice: “That kind of responsibility is way, way, way over the top.”
People cared about football, not about him. “Nobody ever had courage enough to try to give me the tools of life,” he said, and he’d suppressed his unhappy past, which he’d come to believe held the secret to who he is. “I’m learning to love myself,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that it took this situation for me to face myself.”
Great, now I want to vomit.
For someone who grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore—a city so famously known in pop culture for its violence, crime, and drug problems—it’s sad to watch the Ravens organization embody the more gruesome aspects of its hometown. In the last three months alone, five Ravens players have been arrested for charges that range from DUIs to misdemeanor battery to drug possession (marijuana, to be fair), while there have only been 14 arrests across the NFL’s other 31 teams combined. Go back further, of course, and you can reminisce about much more visible cases: Ray Lewis was part of a famous murder investigation, while Terrell Suggs was accused of horrendous domestic assault on his girlfriend, Candace Williams, for threatening to pour bleach on her and their son, and punching her out and dragging her alongside a moving car while her children were riding in it. In a terrifyingly effective cleanup job, Williams dropped her claims and the accompanying $70 million lawsuit, as Suggs told the media that they were working on their relationship.
The sad truth is that stories like these are forgotten over time. We’re only talking about Ray Rice now because there was viral, tangible evidence—a scene no one could ignore. The media had an audience to spur and national sports figures to expose. Perhaps it’s not surprising that we’re still talking about, but it’s frustrating that so many are still somehow completely missing the point. It’s exhausting and infuriating to watch carefully executed publicity campaigns masquerade as journalism. And it’s even scarier when these meticulously curated cleanup jobs actually seem to work; helping to explain why so many Ravens fans proudly and openly continued to support Rice even after what they had seen.
When an act like this one is so cut and dry, so accessible to anyone who wants to pass judgment on it, it’s a journalist’s job to tell the story that isn’t already blatantly in front of us. When we’re watching a case of abuse—even if it’s reported to have “only happened once”—unfold on a national platform, maybe it’s part of the media’s job to save victims from the narrative of their abusers. There’s a line between prying and privacy, just as, in the case of Rice, there’s a line between writing a story about a person’s remorse and writing a story about a redemption campaign that then becomes a key component of that very campaign. This incident in particular asks us, as journalists, if we need to save victims of abuse from the media—not because their stories shouldn’t be told, but because they should be told in a way that’s free from the overwhelming presence/bias/influence of their attackers.
In the case of Ray Rice and Janay Palmer, all we know is what we’ve been allowed to see. And even though that turned out to be far more than we ever wanted to see, the rest is still unknown—raw material for glitzy PR gurus to spin into a fairy tale wherein the hero has an existential crisis and takes it out at the wrong person at the wrong time. The personal trauma of that night has all but been woven into the plot of a family-sitcom that closes with a lesson learned and all forgiven. It’s ridiculous, the level of shame that has been projected onto Palmer, and the amount of fault that she has publicly take on herself, purposefully or otherwise. Of all the characters in this mess of publicists, sports organizations, family members, and reporters, she’s the only one who has nothing to apologize for.
Today Show and Rice fan photos by AP Images; all other images by Getty.