Seeing is Believing When it Comes to Domestic Violence

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Robin Barton

They say a picture paints a thousand words. But in this technological age, a mere photo just isn’t good enough. Apparently, people now need a video before they believe something happened, or that an event was as serious as described.

On February 15, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice got into an altercation with his then-fiancé Janay Palmer in an elevator in an Atlantic City, NJ casino.

As a result, Rice was arrested and, in March, indicted for 3rd degree aggravated assault. The next day, he and Palmer were married.

The incident initially became big news when, a few days after it occurred, a video appeared showing the end of the altercation, with Rice dragging an apparently unconscious Palmer out of the elevator as if she were a bag of laundry.

This first video resulted in some negative commentary.

But there wasn’t real outrage until the July announcement by the National Football League (NFL) that Rice would be penalized with a two-game suspension, which seemed paltry in light of the lengthy suspensions players have gotten for violating the league’s drug policy.

In response, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell vowed to toughen the domestic violence policy. And he did.

Under the new policy, a player who commits domestic violence faces a six-game suspension without pay. A second offense would result in banishment, although a player could petition for reinstatement after a year.

Then—forgive my language—all hell broke loose when TMZ released a video of what actually occurred inside the elevator car between Rice and Palmer. The graphic clip shows Rice cold-cocking Palmer with a single punch to the face, knocking her to the ground and rendering her unconscious.

Suddenly, people go nuts! There are outraged calls from football fans, sports reporters, women’s groups, domestic violence experts, etc. for Rice’s ouster from the NFL and the Ravens—and for Goodell’s resignation.

Those calls became even louder after Goodell claimed that no one in the NFL had seen this video during its investigation of the incident. Many scoffed at that claim. So the league hired Robert S. Mueller III, former director of the FBI, to launch an independent investigation of its handling of the Rice case.

And now an ESPN report claims that the Ravens knew about the contents of the elevator video months ago and had tried to keep it from being released.

Public fury over the video finally forced the Ravens to take action, ending its contract with Rice and agreeing to buy back jerseys bearing his name and number from angry fans. The NFL also suspended him indefinitely.

There’s a lot of blame to go around in how the Rice situation was handled.

Many journalists have rightly criticized the way the NFL and Ravens handled this situation and how the league has handled—and is handling—other players facing similar charges.

Criticism has also been leveled at the New Jersey prosecutor’s decision to let Rice enter a pre-trial program that would leave him with a record of the arrest but no conviction if he keeps his nose clean and attends counseling for a year. (Reports have indicated that this program is usually reserved for non-violent offenders.)

Other writers have done a great job covering the various angles of these aspects of this upsetting scenario.

I would like to discuss the public’s reaction to these events, particularly the initial reports and the first video.

It seems very clear from the first video released that whatever happened in that elevator car was bad—bad enough that it left Palmer limp as a rag doll as her fiancé dragged her across the floor.

He didn’t carry her or display any tenderness toward her whatsoever. He didn’t call for help. At one point, he drops her and she lays motionless on the ground as he stands over her, unmoved.

But that video didn’t result in cries of outrage or disgust, or lines of fans trying to return their Rice jerseys. The loud outcry for Rice’s head didn’t happen until the second video was released.

Why did it take the elevator video to get people so upset by this terrible incident? What did they think had happened in the elevator?

When the first video came out, it had already been reported that Rice had been arrested for assault. So it should have been clear that Palmer didn’t, for instance, faint or suffer a stroke.

Not enough people cared until they were confronted with the disturbing image of a very fit, athletic man punching the woman he claims to love squarely in the face. Then suddenly domestic violence became “real.”

This response is sadly consistent with society’s attitude toward domestic violence in general.

The average Joe (and Jane) seem to have the view that what happens behind closed doors between a man and his wife is none of our business. (“It’s a family matter,” you hear people say.)

So is their outrage at the Rice situation the result of where Rice struck Palmer, i.e., in a public elevator, rather than inside the four walls of their home?

Or does the “closed door” philosophy also apply to the doors of an elevator? That is, did people simply choose not to think about what happened behind the closed doors of the elevator until it was revealed via video and so couldn’t be ignored?

Rice isn’t the first— and is unlikely to be the last— football player involved in domestic violence.

In fact, his case brings to mind a similar case against another NFL player, Warren Moon.

The former Minnesota Vikings quarterback was charged with scratching, hitting and choking his wife. He went to trial and was acquitted. When asked about the verdict, two jurors said that violence is common in marriages. One added, “There’s some sort of slapping in most marriages.”


Given verdicts and statements like that, is it any wonder that it took a graphic video before the public got truly upset over Rice’s actions and the NFL response?

Football fans bemoaned what happened and how the NFL handled it, but that outrage didn’t stop them from watching the televised games. In fact, less than a week after the elevator video came out, the ratings for such games climbed.

I understand that it’s easier to turn a blind eye to these troubling situations and not get involved in someone else’s dysfunctional relationship.

But domestic violence is not just a family matter. It’s a societal issue. And it’s a crime!

We also shouldn’t forget that there’s a child in the Rice household who could be exposed to seeing her mom abused and grow up thinking that’s how relationships work.

We have a duty to protect that child and to protect Janay Palmer, even if she doesn’t want our protection.

We as a society dropped the ball by not being upset enough when the charges were first filed and when the first video came out. And we should be upset about the other NFL players facing domestic violence charges, despite the lack of video evidence in their cases.

We shouldn’t need to have domestic violence shoved in our faces in the form of a graphic video before we pay attention to the issue. And we shouldn’t have to wait for more such incidents to call for better protection for the victims of physical violence at the hands of loved ones.

Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.


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