America loves football, from Turkey Day touch to Friday Night Lights, from State U. Saturdays to the NFL. And with love comes indulgence, a tolerance for ignoring the rules that govern the rest of us. The National Football League had been exempted from antitrust laws, shielded from tax collectors, fattened by television moguls bearing billion-dollar contracts. No city of any size would fail to send its mayor crawling across glass shards to plead for a franchise. For a crown, there is the Super Bowl, the nation’s greatest communal event, titled in Roman numerals because what’s good enough for Caesar Augustus is good enough for the NFL.
Only some combination of arrogance and willful ignorance could explain commissioner Roger Goodell’s decision in July to impose a mere two-game suspension on running back Ray Rice, who knocked his fiancée Janay Palmer unconscious in February at a New Jersey casino. When the wrist slap drew harsh criticism, Goodell pledged to take domestic violence more seriously in the future–again, not exactly a model of accountability but seemingly enough to satisfy the fans of the Baltimore Ravens who cheered Rice at training camp.
But that was before the surveillance video from inside the casino elevator surfaced on TMZ.com. Within hours, Rice was dumped by the Ravens and suspended indefinitely from the league.
This drama raised a thicket of issues–not least the fact that Rice’s victim was his chief defender against a stiffer punishment. Palmer regained consciousness and became Mrs. Janay Rice. On Instagram, she condemned the unwelcome solicitude from aghast strangers who, in her view, had accomplished nothing except to ruin her husband’s career.
To Leigh Goodmark, director of the Gender Violence Clinic at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law, the question is, “Who owns the rights to this? In a moral sense, should Janay Rice get to say, ‘Stay out of my pain’?” Or is there overriding value in taking a crime that thrives in secrecy and dragging it before the public? Written accounts of violence against women–like the police report in the Rice case–are too easily ignored, but images rivet attention.
The exponential difference between reading about a violent encounter and actually seeing it happen cannot have been a surprise to the NFL. Televising a controlled brand of violence is the league’s golden ticket. But in this case, reading about Rice and actually seeing him go monster was a difference that caught the NFL off guard. Fans, players–even President Obama–voiced disgust at Rice’s brutality and, by extension, at the league’s original nonchalant response.
Ray Rice is just the latest example of football’s reactionary devotion to a cushy status quo. The NFL has been slow to address the long-term damage done by repeated head injuries. The league is being sued by former players alleging that it turned a blind eye to the proven risks of painkiller addiction. In Washington, the NFL franchise owner is clinging desperately to an outdated team name from a past age of casual racial slurs.
What these stories have in common lately is a faint but rising voice of a more demanding public. Football’s friendly critics see the league growing inexorably in power and wealth, and they assert that the NFL should grow in responsibility and accountability too. If football was ever just a game, it’s not anymore. Football is both a model and a reflection of America writ large.
We want to like what we see.
–WITH REPORTING BY KATE PICKERT/LOS ANGELES
This appears in the September 22, 2014 issue of TIME.