Ray Rice was reinstated to the NFL last Friday. A neutral judge found that he had not lied in his testimony to Roger Goodell about Ray’s incident of domestic violence against his then-fiancée Janay Palmer (which raises the interesting question of why Roger Goodell claimed otherwise, but that’s another article in and of itself), and held that Ray could not be punished twice for the same crime simply to appease public opinion. Some people took this to mean that a team would instantly sign Ray, and were outraged that he might play football again.
I find this an interesting example of a question I’ve frequently asked myself about American culture: Are we, as a nation, focused on rehabilitation—on changing mistakes? Or is our primary concern retribution, the righteous vengeance of the wronged—on punishing mistakes?
Ray most likely will not play again this year. NFL teams won’t risk the PR backlash so soon, especially with public opinion focused on the issue of domestic violence right now. Ray being reinstated is not the same thing as him being employed, but some people would take it further and keep Ray from ever playing again.
Personally, I don’t think Ray should play football again this year. What he did was horrific and abhorrent, and there is no room in society for violent behavior of any sort. However, to say Ray should never play again no matter what amends he tries to make means that we care more about salving our own indignant rage than about truly fixing problems. We would rather resign someone to a lifetime of hate and scorn, and in so doing, prohibit any chance of that person learning from their error.
Ray needs to face the consequences for his actions. He needs to learn why what he did to Janay was wrong, and how he can pass that lesson to others, so they can avoid making the same mistake. He needs to find contrition and remorse—not for our benefit who judge him from afar so we can cluck our tongues like approving parents, but so that he truly understands the cost of his actions to another human being. He needs support programs, education, and a network of people who care about helping him recognize and correct his flaws, because Ray doesn’t just disappear when we stop thinking about the issue. Janay doesn’t just disappear. They are two people who will have to deal with this for the rest of their lives, and if they choose to spend those lives together, that support becomes even more necessary.
Janay needs to know that she can live her life without fear of violence, physical or otherwise, from someone she cares for, and that she has alternatives to staying if she wishes to leave.
Ray needs to become a role model against that violence, to take ownership of his mistake and teach others not to fail as he did.
Ray and Janay need support, and help.
This isn’t what they’ll get.
There will be endless loops on primetime sportscasts next offseason, during minicamps and organized team activities, discussing the one thing Ray will be known for from this point on: domestic violence. There will be expert panels, rehashed stories, updates from teams that “may be interested” or “thinking of taking a chance,” and discussion of whether enough punishment has been meted out to satisfy our hunger. We’ll stare with glee at the figure pinned by spotlights, like an ethanoled butterfly in a case. The same glee occurs when prison sentences are announced for those we don’t know, abstractions of humanity we can compare ourselves to and say, “Aren’t we fortunate not to be that person?”
We ask, “How long can we lock someone away for?” and say things like “Hope they don’t drop the soap” or “Cage him like the animal he is,” when what we should be asking is, “How can we take this time to help someone change for the better?” “How can we rehabilitate someone so they don’t err again?”
That isn’t what anyone gets.
We incarcerate minorities and the destitute in ever increasing numbers, fueled by a rapaciously profit-hungry prison industry. We make it impossible for previously convicted criminals to find jobs. We abandon critical services and slash education budgets in gerrymandered “urban” districts and wonder why recidivism rates stay so high. Providing support systems cuts into bottom lines, and it’s far easier to throw someone into SHU (special housing unit). Don’t worry, though, SHU isn’t torture; you’re thinking of solitary confinement. That’s why we stopped calling it solitary confinement. Besides, if someone is in jail, they deserve whatever they get.
There are still people who think that Michael Vick should have never been allowed to play football again, that his crimes could never be fully expunged. Even after serving time in prison, even after working with counselors and animal rights organizations to make sure others knew what he did was wrong, Vick still has to live with a large amount of people who think he can never be rehabilitated, no matter what he does. Even after he paid the price of his actions, they want vengeance, a soothing of their own anger by punishing someone they feel responsible.
We have become a nation that loves to administer punishment, content simply with tearing down, rather than rebuilding. It is evident in our political process, the growing demonization of “enemies” and war rhetoric when referring to opposing viewpoints. It is evident in our judicial process, the widening disparity of “justice” between those who have money and those who don’t. It is evident in our foreign affairs and our economics and our education, and it will not change until we decide it’s not the mistake that’s important, it’s fixing the root causes that led to the mistake.
What Ray Rice did was wrong. What Adrian Peterson did was wrong. What Michael Vick and Ryan Leaf and countless others who have broken society’s laws did were wrong. But if we trap ourselves into the mindset of retribution, if we say that one mistake forever defines a person’s life in a way they can never recover from, and that we have no responsibility other than providing a cage in which they molder, then we’re just as wrong, if not worse, than the people we seek vengeance on.
We live in a world that values retribution, the howling anger of the mob.
What Ray Rice needs, what we need, is rehabilitation.
Chris Kluwe is a retired NFL player who played for eight seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.