Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Upon further further review: Ray Rice, the NFL
and our visual culture



IT’S A VIDEO about 27 jaw-dropping seconds long and it’s been the topic of national discussion, passion and outrage. It’s certainly ended one career and just as certainly deserves to end another. It calls the question of what threshold of behavior, what tolerance we as a society have for domestic violence. And it highlights the power and authority of video in our visually-driven culture, for better and/or worse.

That video of Baltimore Ravens running back and his then-fiancĂ©e Janay Palmer at the Revel Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, N.J., on Feb. 15th, was the second to be released by TMZSports.com. Another video released shortly after the incident, the one we’d been seeing for months, was effectively the “after” image in a “before” and “after” series of events.

The February video — shot from outside the elevator — only showed Rice dragging Palmer out of the elevator car. No full context, no antecedent imagery ... and apparently for the National Football League (Rice’s ultimate employer), no big deal. It led to an astonishingly light reprimand for Rice: a two-game suspension, less than that imposed on players caught smoking marijuana.

Rice and Palmer got married about a month later; he pleaded guilty to assault charges and entered a counseling program. And the couple appeared at a May 23 press conference, where Ray Rice, in a toweringly maladroit statement, said: “I won't call myself a failure. Failure is not getting knocked down. It's not getting up.”

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But that was all about the “after” video — we’ll call it Video #1. The “before” video, Video #2, also obtained by TMZSports.com, came to light on Monday. It is something else again:

In those 27 seconds, Rice and Palmer enter the elevator, at which point Rice appears to lean in and spit in the face of Palmer, the mother of their 2-year-old daughter Rayven. Palmer responds, either pushing Rice or brushing him back with a token shove. Rice then strikes Palmer, who raises her arm in a defensive action. Rice steps back as Palmer reacts in anger, stepping toward Rice a few steps.

Then, with a motion so fast it’s hard to capture even using TiVo’s frame-by-frame replay capabilities, Rice cold-cocks Palmer with his left fist, knocking Palmer to the floor of the elevator, her head ricocheting off the handrail on the way down.

Rice stands looking at her, seeming to almost dare her to get up. After several seconds, as the elevator doors open and close and open again, he clutches the unconscious woman and drags her out of the elevator with the delicacy of a man dragging a sack of flour into a storeroom.

He deposits her outside the elevator, her feet still inside, then walks back in to retrieve one of her shoes, then nudges her right leg with his foot, standing over her to survey the damage he’s done. Let the outrage begin. Again.

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WHEN THE thunderclap news was announced Monday that Rice had been fired from the Ravens, and then suspended “indefinitely” by the NFL — effectively excommunicated from the league for good — some in the media asked: Why did it apparently take so long to bring down this final hammer on Ray Rice? Why did it require a second video’s release to summon the punishment that could have, should have been levied with the release of the first one?

Some of the argument was that we had the proof all along, referring to Video #1, the one released in February that showed Rice dragging the prostrate form of the woman he presumably loved from the elevator. It seemed that we had the goods on him back then, that what we saw then was, or appeared to be, a clear-cut case of domestic abuse, or outright felonious aggravated assault.

Despite Rice’s admission of wrongdoing, the current debate over the surely dispositive Video #2 overlooks our longstanding insistence as a society and a culture on the visual as evidence — as proof.

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We’re obsessed with the actual observation of an event. We’re skeptical of implication, suggestion and the circumstantial. We’re disinclined to believe in that which we cannot literally, actually see. In our visual, forensic culture, we’re conditioned — in no small part because of the immediacy and ubiquity of information and news in a 24/7 mediasphere — not to fully believe something happened until we can really see it, either with our own eyes or with the surrogates of technology that substitute for our eyes, providing a full and indisputable chronology of events, from start to finish, from beginning to end.

That’s foundational for journalists, who have absolutely no problem using their eyes, or the video cameras that stand in for their eyes, as the primary tools for recording and reporting the news.

That explains our call for police officers to wear body cameras and use dashcams as they do the work they do — as a documentation of events more corroborative than police officers’ recall or even eyewitness statements.

That’s a big part of why law enforcement accounts of what happened to Michael Brown Jr., in Ferguson, Mo., the afternoon of August 9th are still being portrayed in the media in murky, conditional terms. Absent a video of the actual Brown shooting itself, there’s still room for skepticism, like it or not. And without the TMZ Sports video brought to light Monday, there was still apparently room for skepticism as to what happened in that elevator in Atlantic City.


That skepticism’s over. There’s no doubt now as to who the aggressor was in this unfortunate situation. Monday’s video makes that certainty unassailable.

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NOW, OF COURSE, there’s a new and justified skepticism, of the National Football League. There are reasons to doubt the league’s full-throated claim of not having previously seen the video supposedly released on Monday.

In a statement issued Monday morning, the NFL said no one with the league had seen Video #2. “We requested from law enforcement any and all information about the incident, including the video from inside the elevator,” his statement said. “That video was not made available to us and no one in our office has seen it until today.”

But consider the painfully staged May press conference in which Janay Rice sat beside her husband and apologized for her role in the events in that elevator, as documented in the video released in February.


Within moments of her statement on May 23, the Ravens tweeted: “Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident.” This tweet has the pat, conclusive air of a dismissal of the whole matter — to say nothing of communicating the monstrous idea that Janay Rice was somehow complicit in what happened in February.

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There’s now speculation that the NFL must have known about the video released on Monday before Monday; regardless of when TMZ officially released Video #2. Both videos were taken the same night, focused on the same elevator. It’s implausible in the extreme to think that authorities would release one video to the NFL without the other. ESPN’s Jane McManus reported that both were available some time ago. Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Cris Carter and ESPN analyst tweeted the same thing on Monday.

If that’s true, whether NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell actually looked at the horrific contents of Video #2 or not, it all leads to that inevitable Watergate-era question, updated for this time and place, the question only he can answer: What did he know and when did he know it?

True enough, Goodell reacted officially before now. In August he announced harsher penalties for NFL players who commit domestic violence. “My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families,” Goodell announced last month. “I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn't get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.”

But it's not enough. Not nearly enough. Frankly, regardless of what he knew and when, for either ordering or presiding over a series of missteps, apparently calculated deceptions, woeful behavioral double standards and blind eyes turned once or four times too often to matters that truly matter, Goodell must resign from his increasingly feckless stewardship of the National Football League, and the sooner the better. The NFL must do better, and it will do better. When he’s gone.

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WE CAN wrangle forever over the videos seen by NFL officials and when they viewed them. The second-guessing machine is already in full operation. What matters is what happens next.

Like what happens within the NFL now that, upon further further review, we know that the league’s maximum leader and its managers were either complicit in a cover-up or the willful ignorance of information they had at their disposal, or could have had at their disposal.

Like what happens now and in the future at the home of Ray and Janay Rice, in the days and weeks and months to come. Like what happens next in their painful, private world, between them and no one else in the world.

When there’s not a video in sight.

Image credits: Surveillance videos: via TMZSports.com. Michael Brown Jr.: From his Facebook page. The Rices: Parick Semansky/Associated Press. Tweet: @CrisCarter80 (Twitter).  Goodell: Getty Images.

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