And now comes the rending of garments. The Baltimore Ravens announced Tuesday that fans will soon be able to exchange their Ray Rice jerseys at team stores for the jerseys of players who have not yet been captured on TMZ-published surveillance video socking their domestic partners and dragging them, unconscious, from an elevator. In this program the Ravens follow the New England Patriots, who in July 2013 offered fans the opportunity to exchange their Aaron Hernandez jerseys for certain new ones. (Hernandez had been charged with first-degree murder.) Soon more than jerseys will vanish: The rosters in Madden NFL 15, according to Electronic Arts, the popular video game’s publisher, will as of Friday lack Rice too.
The goal, broadly, is to prompt not only Rice’s disappearance from the NFL (the league tossed a lily-gilding indefinite ban his way after the Ravens cut him) and its stadiums but also its branded memorabilia, which is damn near as big a deal to the owners as the games themselves. Presumably the NFL fears a certain type of collector who might wear a Rice jersey as a confused statement on something or other. This is why the NFL’s list of language banned from the back of customized jerseys includes “CARRUTH” among hundreds of curse words and scatological terms. (Rae Carruth, a former Carolina Panthers wide receiver, was convicted of a conspiracy to murder his pregnant girlfriend in 2001.)
When the Patriots offered their Hernandez swap last year, more than 2,500 fans came in, primarily to grab Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, and Vince Wilfork jerseys. What was the calculus? The fans must have figured that they could not any longer wear HERNANDEZ 81 jerseys in good faith. (As a native son of Connecticut, I can assure you: Many of my neighbors might find themselves naked if they had to turn in all their Pats-themed items.) They voluntarily forewent immediate eBay riches or down-the-road cocktail-party kitsch; one might call this good taste.
But the act of turning in a jersey, and being done with it—migrating support effortlessly from Rice to Joe Flacco or Terrell Suggs or Torrey Smith—also reads as unearned absolution. The support Rice received from fans, after all, helped to put him in a position of power. And the unyielding support (both financial and spiritual) that the people of Baltimore have for the Ravens, and that the people of most any metropolis have for their teams, is what leads the NFL to believe it can conduct itself however it likes, apparently lying to even its most loyal reporters.
We’re in a strange place culturally. The sport that has become our national pastime also happens to present pressing moral dilemmas both acute (the Rice violence) and chronic (the game’s violence). It’s a lot to wrangle with.
I know a handful of smart sports fans who give their fall and winter Saturdays and Sundays away to something besides football. And I know a few more people like me, who think the sport entirely barbaric but still love it. Watching at home on Sunday like tens of millions of other Americans, I couldn’t help but whoop and take to my feet every time the Jets’ defense had the Raiders in a third-and-long. We football fans are all in this swamp together, wondering what it is we’re supposed to do.
What we cannot do is outsource our questions to the league and the teams. Because their answer—unlike the names on the backs of our Ravens and Patriots jerseys—will never change.