The 2015 Ray Rice Redemption Tour officially launched this week with similar, similarly glowing profiles of the ex-Baltimore Raven in Men’s Fitness and New York. Once best-known for being one of the top running backs in the National Football League, he’s now principally famous for having knocked his fiancée unconscious in an Atlantic City casino elevator. The assault led to a two-game suspension before video of it surfaced, after which he was cut from his team and ultimately kicked out of the NFL for the season. Rice wants to play again next season, though, and so today, we’re reading about him.
Both of these pieces are press releases, structured as twin feats of real, actual journalism. Men’s Fitness titled their story “Ray Rice In Exile,” and it sets out to interrogate whether or not we should forgive Ray Rice for domestic violence. (Yes.) New York’s is titled “Ray Rice’s redemption campaign,” a bit of self-aware winking that shows the magazine knows this is all a sham and a cynical attempt to get Rice back in good graces with the public so that he is no longer deemed a potential distraction or (nearly as bad) a magnet for negative public relations, and can get back to making lots of money running headlong between other men. But New York’s skepticism ends before the piece actually starts, and soon, this magazine, too, becomes a vessel for the Rice camp to tell everyone who will listen and read that he is a changed man since punching his wife in the face, and besides, it was just a one-time thing.
In the New York piece, writer Steve Fishman divulges that Matthew Hiltzik—a professional cleaner who has worked with the Rices for the better part of a year and has also had a hand in the redemption tours of various celebrities such as Alec Baldwin, Justin Bieber, Manti Te’o, and Bill Cosby—helped set up the (solitary, hourlong) interview with the disgraced athlete. This was a golden opportunity for both publications to examine the genesis of a redemption campaign, of how comeback sausage is made. Instead, both were willing participants.
Most appallingly, New York features Janay explaining away what happened in the casino that night—“We were drunk and tired”—but both publications make very earnest, convincing cases that we should believe that they believe that Rice is closer to Janay, and to God, and to his family, and to his community than ever before.
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And fuck it; maybe they’re right. I don’t know Rice personally. Maybe he’s a good dude. Maybe he’s been exiled for the appropriate amount of time, and is rehabilitated, and should be released back into the public eye. But his goodness doesn’t matter, and so this redemption tour is, in addition to being repulsive, completely unnecessary on its own crass terms. The biggest impediment to Rice getting his job back isn’t that he hit Janay, but when.
When dealing with those in the business of entertaining, there’s a constant, subjective calculus determining their value, based on their ability to entertain you with their talent, the ease with which they can be replaced by others, and their relevance in your various social circles. If they fall below a certain threshold, that’s when their personal transgressions matter. It’s why everyone still loves Michael Jackson, and everyone still lines up to work with Roman Polanski, and it’s why many of Chris Brown’s most ardent supporters are in Rihanna’s demographic, and how Bill Cosby, 77-year-old alleged rapist of dozens of women, has been so easily cast aside by young people even as he continues to sell out venues across the country.
In the NFL, all of this is more complicated, because a player’s personal transgressions really only enter the equation when the league is faced with outside pressures. The NFL is almost entirely concerned by optics—their aim is to be perceived as strong on issues, rather than to actually be strong on them. Their drug tests are a sham; their domestic violence partner is little more than a retail store. For knocking Janay unconscious, Rice was initially suspended for two games, the same amount Washington safety Brandon Meriweather received for a particularly vicious in-game hit on Baltimore Raven Torrey Smith eight months later. The sentence wasn’t extended to the end of the season until TMZ ran a video of the knockout itself for the world to see. For the NFL, the problem wasn’t what he’d done, but what the public thought about it.
This is the consistent logic of the league. Adrian Peterson was placed on the commissioner’s exempt list after photos were leaked of the carnage he unleashed on his son’s body with a tree branch during a spanking. Greg Hardy was placed on the same list after it got out that he beat his girlfriend and threatened her life. (Just last week, the NFL asked for photos of her injuries.)
In the NFL, though, if you can help a team win, you’ll find a team to play for after your punishment has served the league’s public relations purposes. Greg Hardy has already signed with the Dallas Cowboys for the upcoming season. Adrian Peterson will play again next year if he likes. He may play for the Cowboys as well.
Rice, however, knocked out his fiancée after a season in which he averaged 3.1 yards a carry, comfortably the worst of his career, and that, more than his bad image, is what counts to teams, and why he’s having a hard time finding work. It’s what makes this ridiculous redemption tour not just sickening, but, in the strict meaning of the term, absurd. His problem isn’t so much that he knocked out his fiancée but that he did so a little late in his career, while playing in a position in which players are seen as largely interchangeable.
The beneficiary of these stories and the others like them that are sure to come, then, isn’t even Ray Rice; it’s the NFL, which sees respectable outlets perpetuating, for the benefit of an unknown but presumably large number of readers, the polite fiction that Rice’s future has anything to do with what he’s done, or whether he’s yet learned to love himself.
If Rice plays next year, it won’t be because of a heroic trek through adversity, and it certainly won’t be because journalists chronicled it. If he doesn’t, it won’t be because of a failed redemption tour, or because he’s a bad person. It’ll be because he’s a bad player, or at least not good enough to be worth answering questions about; not because the league forced him out, but because he was already on his way.
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