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In eyes of the NFL, marijuana use worse than assault

Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice walks off the field after a training camp practice, Thursday, July 24, 2014, at the team's practice facility in Owings Mills, Md. (AP Photo)

Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice walks off the field after a training camp practice, Thursday, July 24, 2014, at the team's practice facility in Owings Mills, Md. (AP Photo)

Talk about a distraction.

As flippant and meaningless as that word has become in the context of sports and locker rooms, it seems a fitting characterization of Ray Rice’s situation on the Baltimore Ravens – at least in the NFL’s eyes. Since February, we’ve been waiting to hear what kind of punishment the NFL would levy on Rice after graphic footage emerged of the star running back dragging his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, out of an elevator after, the police say, he beat her unconscious with an uppercut. Yesterday, we found out: Rice will receive a two-game suspension and be fined the amount of another game check.

Two games – a blip, a minor inconvenience in a 16-game schedule.

For reference, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon is waiting to appeal a season-long suspension for testing positive for marijuana during the offseason, his second violation of the NFL’s substance-abuse policy, which mandates a minimum suspension of at least a year for multiple offenses. At least 14 other players have been suspended in 2014 – all for either substance abuse or performance-enhancing drug use, and none of whom received less than a four-game penalty. One of them, Indianapolis Colts linebacker Robert Mathis, was suspended four games for taking a fertility drug.

In the NFL, the punishment rarely fits the crime. Leaving aside PED suspensions, the incongruity between a punishment of anywhere from four to 16 or more games for smoking pot and two games for physically assaulting someone is glaring. Marijuana is swiftly being decriminalized, if not legalized, while Rice was charged with third-degree assault.

This is a time to examine the league and its relationship to female fans – all women, really – and the kind of player deification that causes a well-known sportswriter to declare that this actually “isn’t so much about treatment of women.” Forty-five percent of NFL fans are women, who drive 70 percent of all consumer spending. Last year, 20 percent of female football fans said they thought they weren’t being valued by the league. You can bet that number will rise after Rice’s slap on the wrist, no matter how many pink cleats or token mom campaigns or breast cancer awareness videos the NFL produces.

The only statistic that really matters is this: 1.3 million. That’s how many women will be physically assaulted by their partners this year, in addition to 835,000 men. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 25 percent of women will fall victim to domestic abuse at some point in their lifetime.

The NFL is enabling all those spouses by downplaying the severity of Rice’s offense just to get him back on the field sooner. It legitimizes the self-doubt and uncertainty felt by many victims of abuse – the kind that causes some, like Palmer, to actually apologize for being abused. “I do deeply regret the role I played in the incident that night,” Palmer said at a news conference in May that was all-around disastrous. Palmer suffered major backlash for her comments, as many thought the apology lent credence to victim-blaming.

Some are using her apology and the fact that she married Rice after the incident to justify the two-game suspension. That twisted logic is unfortunately supported by a report from Baltimore sportscaster Gerry Sandusky that Palmer’s meeting alongside Rice with Commissioner Roger Goodell might have served to lessen the punishment. But it’s important to remember that Palmer is still a victim, that while she doesn’t speak for all victims, she can serve as a reminder of the perpetual cycle of abuse in which many victims find themselves.

Two years ago, Goodell pledged to do something about the growing scourge of domestic violence among NFL players in negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement. With this CBA expiring in 2020, the league has bought itself at least six more years of having to do nothing at all.

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