In the early morning of February 15, Ray Rice knocked out his then-fiancée in the elevator of the Revel Casino Hotel in Atlantic City. Security-camera video released by celebrity gossip site TMZ four days later showed Rice dragging Janay Palmer’s unconscious body out of the elevator, dumping her unceremoniously on the tiles while conversing with casino staff. In late March, a grand jury indicted Rice for third-degree aggravated assault, and in July the NFL suspended Rice for the first two games of the season.
Testosterone-fueled crimes committed by professional football players being dog-bites-man-type news, most people took little note of the story. But everyone knows about Ray Rice now, of course — because earlier this week TMZ released elevator-cam video showing Rice’s knockout punch.
It is appalling footage. But it is also not new. The investigation by New Jersey authorities in February determined that Rice had knocked his bride-to-be out cold. He was indicted by a grand jury for the “attempt to cause significant bodily injury or actually cause such injury, purposely or knowingly or recklessly, under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life” (third-degree aggravated assault under New Jersey law). He negotiated a legal arrangement with prosecutors to avoid trial by completing a court-supervised intervention program. He and his fiancée wed and went to counseling.
The facts were obvious, and the legal system worked according to normal procedures. The video brings none of that into question.
But it changed our reaction.
In a letter to Ravens fans, team owner Stephen J. Bisciotti wrote that he and the Ravens organization carefully followed the legal developments in Rice’s case, agreeing in February that Rice “deserved the due process of law.” When, in May, “the prosecutor recommended, and the judge agreed,” that Ray could avoid trial by entering a counseling program, the team accepted the recommendation. Bisciotti says that Rice and his wife met with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell before he announced Rice’s two-game suspension, and that the couple took questions from the media.
Then, “yesterday morning Sept 8, all of us saw the video from inside the elevator. It is violent and horrifying. . . . Seeing that video changed everything.” Goodell has said much the same.
But what, exactly, did it change? Neither the facts of Rice’s case nor the lawful actions of grand jury, prosecutor, and judge. Yet the organization’s leaders decided immediately to terminate Rice’s contract. Certainly that decision is justifiable on the grounds that the team is a “family,” or that Baltimore fans could not be “proud” of a team with an abuser on its roster. Within the bounds of contractual obligations, the Ravens are at liberty to make that decision. But what the team effectively did was declare its respect for due process and defer to the determination of the legal system — until, in the face of public outrage, the results of Rice’s due process proved inconvenient. There are a number of NFL players who have assaulted women, some with convictions. None have been vilified like Rice.
It was the video. In this way, Janay Rice’s Instagram post was astute: “No one knows the pain that [the] media & unwanted options from the public has caused my family.” The law, the league, and the couple had cooperated and, by the reckoning of each, resolved the incident. But the release of the video reopened the case not in a court of law, but in the court of public opinion, where millions of amateur observers have psychoanalyzed, speculated, and nitpicked every grainy second of footage.
There is much to be said about the problem of domestic violence, about the rights and responsibilities of victims of abuse, about the way cases of abuse ought to be handled by the legal system. But Ray and Janay Rice made a point of not offering their case as evidence for any argument in these debates. Against their will, the affair they deemed settled, finished, past, has been commandeered for political points, usurped as evidence, transmuted into a morality tale.
TMZ has no doubt garnered millions of website clicks in the last three days. But the release of the video has not served to correct an error or to right a wrong. It has served only to inflame our voyeuristic inclinations and give us de facto permission to readjudicate a settled matter of law.
We do not suffer the consequences of armchair lawyering. Ray and Janay Rice do. However damnable their decisions, in America private citizens still have the right to live private lives.
— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.