Commentary

What to think about Ray Rice

Were Ravens star's actions a tragic mistake or proof of the man's true character?

Originally Published: August 7, 2014
By Kevin Van Valkenburg | ESPN The Magazine

THREE YEARS AGO, when I was still a writer with The Baltimore Sun and Ray Rice was famous only for playing football, we sat on stools about a foot apart in the Ravens locker room and talked about how, as a kid growing up in New Rochelle, N.Y., he'd been something of a speed chess prodigy.

Rice told me how much he loved the game, that he still regularly played it on his iPhone. It helped him relax, he said, but it also encouraged him to work through problems in a strategic way. "It was all a process of thinking," Rice said, describing why he'd relished playing competitively. "As soon as you hit that timer, you need to be thinking about your next move." He talked about a tournament he'd won in New York City when he was 9 years old, overcoming fear and doubt and triumphing against older, bigger kids.

The chess story was the perfect anecdote to tie together a profile of a Pro Bowl running back who also just so happened to be, I declared, one of the NFL's best people. When Rice's rookie contract was set to expire in 2012, I wrote a column imploring Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome to sign him to a long-term deal, not just because he was one of the best playmakers in the game but because he was important to the Baltimore community.

[+] EnlargeRay Rice
Mel Evans/AP ImagesRice's joint news conference with his wife could be considered a public relations train wreck.

He spearheaded an anti-bullying campaign in Baltimore! He opened his football camp to thousands of underprivileged kids!

This winter, when I watched the grainy hotel security video of Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée, Janay Palmer, out of an elevator after allegedly knocking her out, I thought about my chess story and wondered whether I had somehow played a role, however small, in the selling of a Ray Rice: Great Player & All-Around Great Guy narrative that now seemed so patently false. I thought about whether that said anything about my character, my instincts. I also thought a lot about my two daughters, about one day sending them out into the world and about the men who might someday come into their lives.

Rice isn't ready to speak with me just yet, the Ravens say. Maybe down the road, they say. So, I decided to make some calls, talk to people who can help me find an answer to the one question that continues to dominate my thoughts. Is Ray Rice a man who made a single, aberrant, wildly out of character mistake for which he is truly sorry and for which he seeks to atone? Or is he a dangerous man likely to abuse his wife again or worse?


JOHN HARBAUGH wants me to know he's disappointed -- disappointed that a person he respected so much could screw up so horribly. But also disappointed by the way the issue has been framed in its aftermath. Ray Rice made a terrible mistake, Harbaugh says, but that does not make him a terrible person. And standing by him, the Baltimore coach says, does not mean the Ravens condone spousal abuse. Why, Harbaugh wonders, can't there be any nuance?

The coach is hesitant to talk at first. We're standing on the practice field, away from the rest of the media, watching members of the team -- Rice among them -- file into the locker room after a recent workout. Harbaugh suspects what he's about to say might only fan the flames of anger. He knows most people don't want to hear him say he still believes in Rice. Or that it took him "two seconds" to decide he would stand by the running back as long as Rice told the truth about what happened the night of Feb. 15 in Atlantic City. "It's not good what happened," Harbaugh says. "But I talk to Ray all the time, and I know how remorseful he is. I know how broken he is."

The decision to support Rice, it seems, was not based on how badly Harbaugh's team needs the running back, nor made because he doesn't grasp the gravity of what Rice did. He's offering his support, he argues, because Rice and his wife are a part of Harbaugh's extended family. "Are you going to disown someone in your family because they make a mistake? People have kids, their kids make hundreds of mistakes, and they still have a bedroom for them, a place for them to come home to. This is different, sure. The NFL is still a business. But with Ray, we know him. We love him. He's part of us. Janay is too."

Would people be happy if the Ravens jettisoned Rice, declared him morally unfit to wear purple and black? Probably, Harbaugh concedes. But how would that help the situation? How would making it some other team's issue increase the odds Rice will never put his hands on his wife again? "So I don't think we're just going to cut him to assuage public opinion? So people can say 'Oh, these guys are tough!' To me, that would be a selfish decision," Harbaugh says. "To say 'We'll show everybody how tough we are, what a class organization we are because we'll throw this guy overboard.' That would be, to me, unimpressive."

Harbaugh says he understands what's at stake, what the organization is risking by choosing to support Rice. Like me, Harbaugh has a daughter he will have to send out into the world one day. We've had conversations about our kids, about the blessing and the challenge it is to raise daughters. But where I am skeptical, he is hopeful. He knows Rice better than I do, certainly. Perhaps that should count for something? "Some people will forgive him, and some people won't," Harbaugh says. "I know he's asked for forgiveness, and whether he gets it or not is not up to the people doing the forgiving."

The coach, raised a devout Catholic, often looks to the Bible for guidance in difficult times, and this, he says, has been no different. "What does the Bible say about discipline? You either accept it or you reject it," Harbaugh says. "The wise man accepts it, and the fool rejects it. Well, Ray's accepted it, and he's been humbled. He's going to be a better man for it. I believe that. But the journey's not over. It's not like he's going to be mistake-free for the rest of his life. Who is?"

I want to believe him. I'm just not sure I can.


TORREY SMITH IS really the only Raven I want to talk to about Ray Rice. He's the only teammate who showed up in support of Rice and his wife at their joint news conference in May, an event that might charitably be described as a public relations train wreck. Harbaugh, Newsome and owner Steve Bisciotti all had somewhere else to be, so they weren't there to watch Rice fiddle with his phone or stammer through a stilted apology that didn't include his wife, Janay. They didn't have to sit there when the Rices' 2-year-old daughter, Rayven, started crying so hard a relative had to carry her out of the room. But Smith did.

[+] EnlargeRay Rice
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesRice's father-in-law appeared to show compassion for Rice after the May news conference.

"It's very easy to be there for someone when it's convenient, when things are going well," Smith tells me one day after practice. "It's definitely harder when it's tough times. I know it was a tough time, and I know how he is as a person. I wanted to be there for them both. Obviously they were nervous, but I think they did about as well as they could."

When I saw Smith standing quietly in the back of the room that day, it surprised me. I knew that, as a kid growing up in Virginia and Minnesota, Smith had helplessly watched his stepfather physically and verbally abuse his mother for several years before she found the courage to divorce him. I knew the damage to Smith and his family lingered for years. I had to ask him: What makes this situation so different?

"You're right, I do have a zero tolerance for that," Smith says. "I watched it growing up, and it's never acceptable, regardless of any situation. But even with my mom's situation, I was able to forgive her ex-husband at the time. I'm able to forgive him now. The difference -- and again, this is tough because it's such a serious issue for our country -- is that it's easy to say I'm sorry with no action behind it. That's what we witnessed growing up. There was a lot of 'I'm sorry!' but there was never any action behind it. Nothing was ever done except him saying he would change. Ray is in counseling, and he's responded very well to it. I know him as a person, and I know this changed him. I know he's going to be a better man, a better husband. People aren't going to believe that, but I know him. He's not just saying the words, he's putting his actions behind it. And I'm willing to stand there and help him get through it."

Smith wasn't the only person I was surprised to see at Rice's news conference. Janay Rice's father, Joe Palmer, was also there. When Rice was done speaking, and he declined to take questions on the advice of his attorney, Joe Palmer got out of his front-row seat and hugged Rice. The two men had tears in their eyes. "Joe has been like a father to Ray over the years," Harbaugh says, when I ask him about it later. "And until Joe, Ray never really had a father." Ray was raised by his mom, Janet, in New Rochelle; when he was 1 year old, his father was killed in a drive-by shooting.

If Smith and Joe Palmer, who is also declining to speak to the media, believe in Rice so strongly they're willing to give him a chance to atone for the biggest mistake of his life, should I be at least open to the idea? "If her family stuck by him, and they're in the toughest position of anybody, then maybe everyone else should be able to kind of move on from it," Smith says.

I can't help but admire Smith's compassion for Rice in the face of all that Smith has seen in his life. But for the rest of us, forgiveness feels a lot like forgetting.


SANDI TIMMINS WANTS me to understand that it doesn't matter whether Ray Rice is a good person. Timmins is the executive director of the House of Ruth, a Baltimore-based organization that provides shelter, counseling and legal services to victims of domestic violence. I want to know what she thinks of the NFL's decision to suspend Rice for just two games. She tells me she's weary of hearing the excuse that it's OK to stand by Rice because this incident is so out of character.

[+] EnlargeRay Rice
Gail Burton/AP ImagesThere's a color designated to raising awareness about domestic violence, and Rice wears it every time he puts on his Ravens jersey.

"There is never, ever an excuse for a man hitting a woman, even once," Timmins says. "It's abhorrent behavior that should never be tolerated. And when we start talking about someone being a good guy, which frequently happens when it's a celebrity, the effect is that the abuse is minimized. It's excused and ignored. It sends a message to everyone that this is an acceptable way to handle it."

Timmins, who started as a volunteer on the House of Ruth's 24-hour domestic violence hotline before she rose to become the executive director, still finds the video of Rice dragging Palmer's limp body off the elevator difficult to watch. "It's just so blatant," she says. "It's horrifying." And to her, the NFL's light punishment is yet another reminder of what's at stake. We can't just focus on protecting women, she says. We also need men to step up and hold other men accountable. That's why the NFL's penalty is so disappointing. It's an opportunity lost to show not only that the league cares about its female fans but that it cares about putting an end to domestic violence. We have to change the attitudes of men, starting when they're little boys. A point Timmins know all too well since her grandson, Lucas, is a huge fan of Ray Rice. When this happened, she told her daughter to explain to him what happened in very simple, direct language: Rice is accused of hitting a woman, which is something no man should ever do. His actions are unacceptable.

"We talk a lot about the fact that one in four women will be in a relationship at some point that becomes physically violent," Timmins says. "It's a really powerful statistic because it's so stunning. Well, one in eight women will be affected in her life by breast cancer, and the response to that is completely different. We wear pink. We run races. We surround the woman and her family with love. We don't run races for domestic violence [awareness]."

When I point out to Timmins that the NFL dedicates an entire month to breast cancer awareness by asking its players and coaches to wear pink gloves, shoes and hats and that you can even buy a pink Ray Rice jersey on NFLshop.com, she tells me something I didn't know. There's also a color designated to help raise awareness for domestic violence. It wouldn't even be hard for the Ravens to lead the campaign.

"It's the color purple," Timmins says.


JANAY RICE, like her husband, is not talking to the media anymore. But that has not stopped the media from turning her into a talking point, an anecdote in a self-righteous rant, a prop used to make a point on Twitter. Rare are the acknowledgments that she's an actual human being -- a wife, a mother, a daughter -- who, every day, has to see the complexities of her life turned into sound bites by news organizations big and small. I try to keep this in mind as I argue with myself about why I would want to hear from Janay Rice, what I would ask her and whether I would believe her. Sandi Timmins told me the House of Ruth believes, as an organization, that we can't treat this as if it's a private matter because of the danger that exists. But why should Janay Rice share her feelings with the world? How would that make her safer?

I find a link that, I think, might offer at least a sliver of insight. It's their wedding video, or, more accurately, the highlights of their wedding day edited together and set to music. Much was made of the Rices' quick marriage the day after his indictment on aggravated assault, but on June 27 the two held a formal ceremony in front of family and friends at the Four Seasons in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. There are tender scenes of Rice kissing his bride on the rooftop of the hotel while her hair blows in the wind, sweeping shots of the water and the skyline, and snippets of Janay walking down the aisle in a white dress with a 10-foot train. There's even a shot of Rice scooping up their daughter, Rayven, and as he holds her tightly, I see she's clutching a purple Doc McStuffins plastic syringe just like the one my daughter has.

It seems improbable that the video -- titled "We Made It" -- didn't go viral in the crush of media coverage after his suspension, but as far as I can tell, it's barely been circulated. If you were to stumble on the link with no prior knowledge of the couple's complicated history, you'd read nothing but joy on their faces. But when armed with the knowledge of recent events, a few lines from their wedding vows that appear in the video take on a much larger meaning.

"There were days when I didn't think we would get here," Janay says during the ceremony. "But I can't put into words how grateful I am for God putting you and keeping you in my life."

She looks so happy, like there is so much joy in her life yet to come. I want to rejoice with her. I want to stop being afraid for her. I wonder how to hold both fear and hope in your heart.


RICE IS ALMOST ready to take questions from the media, to try, one more time, to apologize and explain his actions. The Ravens pick a date, July 31, and say they won't limit what kind of questions can be asked. On July 30, I get in touch with Jaime Boswell, who wants me to understand that football, Rice's two-game suspension, the PR gaffes, the media harping on teachable moments -- all of it pales in the face of what's really at stake.

[+] EnlargeRay Rice
Gail Burton/AP ImagesOn July 31, Rice tries, one more time, to explain his actions and take question from the media.

Boswell, 36, is a huge Ravens fan. So was her best friend Amber Schinault. Football, in fact, was the centerpiece of one of their friendship's most memorable days. When Schinault scored a pair of club-level Ravens tickets, she took Boswell. The pair had a blast. "We took pictures and everything," Boswell says. "I can't tell you how much fun it was to watch a football game from great seats with my best friend."

They figured they had more football games in their future. And dinners, movies, after-work drinks, the countless phone calls and afternoons filled with laughter. "We were inseparable," Boswell says.

But in June 2012, Schinault was assaulted by her live-in boyfriend, Andrew Kugler. They'd been together just over a year when Schinault confronted him about his cheating, Boswell says. Kugler also threw her down a flight of stairs, she says, and later Schinault severed several of her fingers in a violent incident involving his car. Terrified, Schinault took out a protective order against him from the hospital. She spent a month at her parents' house rehabbing her injuries before returning home. Three days later, Kugler broke into Schinault's house and slashed her throat, killing her at the age of 36. Kugler was convicted of first-degree murder in May of this year and is facing life in prison without parole.

On the surface, what happened to Schinault has absolutely no connection to anything that happened between Ray and Janay Rice. But for Boswell, watching the elevator video of Rice was a horrifying reminder of what happened to Schinault. Boswell once thought Kugler was a great guy too. "It was really disheartening because you hear all these good things about Ray Rice and how he's such a team player," Boswell says. "Then I saw that video and I just felt a jolt. I'm just like, I have no faith anymore. It just brought back too much. I think about what happened to Amber every single day. It never goes away for me. I'm so glad I don't have his jersey because I wouldn't wear it again."

In the year after Schinault's death, 27 more women in the state of Maryland died as the result of a domestic incident, according to data gathered by the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence. "Everyone keeps it hush-hush," says Boswell, who is petitioning the state of Maryland to add GPS devices to the cars of men with protective orders filed against them. "Nobody wants to talk about it. And when it's a celebrity, it's even worse. It's very disheartening." But the ever-present fear of more violence is a reality Janay and Ray Rice will most likely live with for the rest of their lives.

People will always worry: What if it happens again? What if next time it's worse?


ON JULY 31, exactly 166 days after he was arrested in Atlantic City, Ray Rice walks to a microphone that's been set up next to the Ravens practice field. There are 15 TV cameras pointed at his face. Close to 50 reporters are huddled in a semicircle, ready with questions as soon as the cameras go live. Janay Rice watches the circus from a balcony overlooking the field, her face devoid of emotion. Rice offers up a nervous smile. Thirty of his teammates form a wall behind the media -- to show their support, I presume, but also, I suspect, because they too want to hear what Rice is going to say.

He has some notes in his hand, but once he starts speaking, he abandons them and starts riffing on his own. His actions that night were inexcusable, he says. It's not representative of who he is as a man, but it's something he'll have to live with for the rest of his life. He'll continue to go to counseling. He'll miss playing the first two weeks of the season but will accept his suspension without complaint. Any punishment he has received pales in comparison with what is to come. "I don't want you to think that I'm condoning my actions. I take full responsibility for what happened. My wife can do no wrong. What happened that night was something that should've never happened," Rice says. "I have to pay for that for the rest of my life because my daughter is very intelligent. She's going to want to know what happened, because she's going to press Google one day, and just how fast this message is going to go worldwide, that's how fast my daughter is going to be able to pick up a phone and Google her father's name. And the first thing that's going to come up is not how many touchdowns I scored. It's going to come up about what happened. That's a lot of punishment that I have to deal with for the rest of my life, because the last thing I want my daughter to do is regret me. The last thing I want my wife to do [is] to ever live in fear."

He doesn't want to relive the incident, but he is adamant that this is the only time he has ever hit a woman. Someday, maybe not too far into the future, he says he wants to be there for victims of domestic violence, and I wonder whether he can wrap his head around the idea that victims of domestic violence might actually balk at his help. The memory of that elevator video might linger forever in people's minds, no matter what he says or does.

Before he's halfway finished, though, I can already tell he's going to get positive reviews. The narrative is shifting. Whether that's because he's sincere in his remorse or because this was an impeccable performance is impossible to know. But the fact that he's gotten much better at apologizing in public over the past two months seems to have put him on the general path toward public forgiveness. If Rice plays well this fall, someone is going to spin it as a redemptive story, a thought that makes me sick. I've already heard a reporter ask another Raven whether this whole affair has been a distraction, implying that football is what really matters here. When I tie my oldest daughter's hair in a ponytail at night before putting her to bed, I think about all the little girls in ponytails and braids I saw at M&T Bank Stadium for the Ravens first public practice, stretching their tiny arms over the railing, trying so hard to get Ray Rice's autograph.

Only once during his second press conference does Rice say something that makes me shake my head.

"Everybody knows if you take deep thought into this, you'll know this was not the guy that you all know ... ," Rice says.

I have thought deeply about it, I want to tell him. But I still don't know what to believe. I wish I did. It would be easier just to believe. But I just don't know if I -- if any of us -- can risk it.

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Kevin Van Valkenburg | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine

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