By Jack Crosbie
On February 15, 2014, Ray Rice, the star running back for the Baltimore Ravens, punched his fiancee Janay Palmer in the face. She was knocked cold, either by the punch or when her head hit the handrail of an Atlantic City hotel elevator, a moment immortalized by the small security camera in the corner.
Four days later, TMZ released security footage from a camera in the hallway of Rice dragging an unconscious Palmer out of the elevator. That video was enough to convict him in the eyes of much of the public, although NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Ravens executives danced around the issue of his guilt for nearly seven months, when TMZ released the direct footage from the elevator, showing the brutal punch, Palmer’s fall, and Rice’s seemingly callous attempts to move her.
“Unfortunately spousal abuse [among NFL players] has been around for years, and the league has clearly tolerated and chose not to confront it,” said John Sweeney, the University of North Carolina’s Distinguished Professor in Sports Communication. “But the Ray Rice case was accompanied by that video, and that video put it in a whole different place, and I think the league was forced to react to that.”
But a lot can happen in a year. When a major scandal breaks, the story follows a familiar arc. An event occurs — Rice hits his fiancee, Kobe Bryant is accused of rape, Tiger Woods cheats on his wife — and when it comes out and the appropriate institutions react, there is a “moment of assigning blame, deciding who is responsible for what has gone wrong,” says John Affleck, a former AP sports reporter and the Knight Chair of Sports Journalism and Society at The Pennsylvania State University. Rice’s first calls, in a car back to Baltimore, were to his agent, Todd France, Ravens Security Director Darren Sanders, and his mother, according to Janay Rice’s account of the day, as told to Jemele Hill of ESPN. At some point, when the story hits the media, involved parties will often hire a “Strategic Communications,” or public relations firm to help them shape the story as it plays out.
There are two types of clients in this situation, says Jack Deschauer, a vice president and crisis communications expert at Levick, a strategic communications firm with offices in New York and Washington, DC. “The smarter half call right away, the others call when it’s 48 to 72 hours too late.”
But the Rice story developed slowly, after the initial burst of coverage and the release of the first video on Feburary 19, 2014. Rice and Janay Palmer quickly got married, moving their planned date up a several months, and stayed away from the media, especially after the disastrously-scripted Ravens press conference on May 23. In it, Janay Rice apologized for her role in the incident, prompting a fierce backlash of media accusing the Ravens of putting her in a situation of victim-blaming, something Katherine Redmond Brown said is common, if not encouraged, in the NFL’s culture.
“It has always been, ‘What did the woman do to make the guy do this?’” Redmond Brown said. “None of the NFL teams have done anything to undo that, and they’ve benefitted from it.”
But Redmond Brown says the video evidence of Rice’s crime upset any notions of Janay Rice’s culpability or responsibility for Rice’s actions. “What you see in that video that people were so shocked by was the imbalance of power,” she said.
Still, a stroke of luck or legal brilliance got Ray Rice into a pre-trial intervention program that less than one percent of domestic violence offenders receive in New Jersey, letting him avoid jail time, and the story continued to simmer. In many cases, Affleck said it’s important for the guilty party to let time pass before speaking out, as “there is often a sort of denouement, or second act, in which the person who was most ostracized gets a chance to come back.”
For Rice, that happened in the late fall of 2014, when an arbitrator overturned Goodell’s ban from the NFL. Rice was reinstated to the league on November 28, close to three months after the second video’s shocking footage prompted the Ravens to cut him from the team and Goodell to throw him out of the league. The second video also prompted Rice and his manager to bring on Hiltzik Strategies, a strategic communications firm, to help manage the family’s public relations in the last months of 2014.
While he was technically able to play, none of the NFL’s 32 teams signed him. The man who knocked out a woman with a single punch in an elevator, according to police reports, was still the media’s favorite pariah — at least until the woman he hit stepped up to speak for him.
On November 29, Janay Rice, formerly Janay Palmer, told her account of the night of February 15 and the following weeks to Jemele Hill, a veteran reporter for ESPN. Janay Rice followed up the as-told-to piece with a carefully-constructed taped interview with the Today Show’s Matt Lauer, holding firm to the line that her husband was a good man who made a terrible mistake. She was eloquent, sincere, and according to Hill, completely consistent in her story. In the interview with Lauer, she sat on the couch in the family home in Baltimore, her mother beside her.
All of these details matter, and Deschauer said that PR firms want to control those details as much as possible. “This [a Rice exclusive] was a major get for a news organization, when you have something like that, that news organizations want, you have a lot more say,” Deschauer said.
“What they’re trying to do is control the narrative. They want to send the athlete’s message, repeat it, keep it simple as possible, and control the message through clothing, body language, and who is there,” Affleck said. When Ray Rice stepped into the interview after Lauer’s formal sit down with Janay, “They’re close, they’re physically touching each other, trying to send the message that they’re really sorry.”
It also helps that Rice was a hometown hero. He and Janay met when they were teenagers living in rival suburban towns north of New York City, where Rice was the star of the New Rochelle High School football team. Janay told Hill about Rice’s generosity, his devotion to his family, and said that she never considered leaving him, even after that night last February.
“Before this, he had a very good public opinion,” Hill said, “Which might make it easier for people to see him as a good guy, who had a really bad night.”
This mantra— “good guy, bad night,” cropped up many times in Janay’s exclusive interviews. And with good reason — almost everyone involved agrees that Janay’s story, as told to Hill and Lauer, was her husband’s best, and perhaps only, shot at regaining any shred of his former positive public image after the event.
“I don’t think there’s any question that she’s [Janay Rice] part of him restoring his public image. She’s a big part of that. Any time you sit down with somebody, everybody has an agenda,” Hill said. “I think that agenda is coming from a place of her loving the person that she’s with, and like anyone in that situation she’s bothered and hurt by the public perception of him.”
And for Rice, public perception is everything. He has been reinstated to the league, but won’t play another down of professional football unless a team decides that the 28-year-old running back’s merits as a player outweigh his record off the field.
“At some point,” Affleck said, “everybody’s got a price.”
And Rice’s price, with the ever-present footage of the terrible punch, is high. “It’s a case closed, unless some losing team decides they want to tolerate having that video in every report,” Sweeney said. But Rice has two widely-agreed upon advantages — his wife’s loyalty and the desperate culture of victory in professional sports.
“This is profession where a third of the coaches get fired in any given year,” Affleck said. “The win now mentality is one where that can overcome stuff.”
Kobe Bryant survived a similar media storm in 2003, when he was accused of rape by a 19-year-old hotel employee. Bryant maintained that the sex was consensual, and his defense took a hard line against his accuser, questioning her credibility. She eventually declined to testify, and the prosecution dropped the charges. Bryant later settled a civil suit with his accuser out of court. Like Rice, Bryant’s wife stood by him through the case, even as he acknowledged his adultery.
In the world of professional sports, the trend of victims or wronged women standing by their partners is not uncommon, Redmond Brown said.
“There’s a social interaction that occurs [between athlete and spouse] — this is what you get from being with me, this is what your family gets from being with me… because of this deal we made,” Redmond Brown said. “When you have friends and family and fans pushing you back in, it can be a very difficult situation to get out of.”
And with his wife on his side, Bryant was given a second chance. He returned to the Lakers, put his head down, and carried them to three finals appearances and two NBA championships in the following years. When Bryant takes the court now, the case is not discussed — and Hill thinks that given the chance, Rice’s story could play out the same way.
“Kobe Bryant won championships after that [case]. If you win you’ll pretty much be forgiven of anything,” Hill said. “If he [Rice] is given another opportunity to contribute to a winning situation, over time you’ll probably see the public soften to who he is.”
But as so many athletes and celebrities and politicians know, it’s hard to argue against video. On February 15, 2014, Ray Rice punched his fiancee in an elevator. She stayed with him, and he may play football again, but no amount of wedding or Superbowl rings will erase that tape.