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Why We Shouldn’t Be Surprised That Fans Are Still Supporting Ray Rice

5 minute read

According to the old adage, seeing is believing.

But for some Ray Rice fans, it seems that not even witnessing a video of their hero violently punching a woman in the face and knocking her unconscious, is enough to make them believe that the running back deserved to be suspended from the NFL.

At Thursday’s Baltimore Ravens game, several fans, both men and women, turned up sporting Rice jerseys, emblazoned with the number 27. The game marked the Ravens’ first since Rice was kicked off the team and suspended indefinitely by the NFL after a surveillance video leaked showing the 206-pound athlete punching his then-fiancee—and now-wife—Janay inside a hotel elevator back in February. The punch shown is vicious and the video was disturbing enough to result in public outcry, which prompted the running back’s ouster.

And though Rice has been repeatedly denounced by fans and in the media this week, it seems not everyone feels the same way. Though a stall was set up at M&T Bank Stadium where Ravens’ fans could trade in their Rice jerseys for another player’s, there were several people—including women—who wanted to publicly show their support for Rice.

“There’s two sides to every story,” 23-year-old Racquel Bailey told the Associated Press about her decision to wear the jersey. “I saw the video. That’s their personal business, and it shouldn’t have affected his career. I don’t agree with domestic violence, but she’s still with him, so obviously it wasn’t that big of a deal. Everyone should just drop it.”

Another woman wearing a Rice jersey told Fox Sports 1, “I’m making a statement. I don’t believe in domestic violence, but I will say: any woman who can hit a man, a man shouldn’t have to sit there and take the abuse.”

Still more fans at the game chose to broadcast their support of Rice on social media:

While profoundly depressing, the attitudes of these fans shouldn’t actually be all that surprising. Let’s consider the kind of God-like status our society gives to professional athletes, through which they receive fawning coverage, sky-high salaries and fan adoration—so long as they’re playing well. Though such treatment of the players might offer some sort of insight into why some commit crimes, it also gives us an idea as to why so many are so easily forgiven by fans. It’s not always easy to reconcile the crimes or misdeeds of those we’ve placed on a pedestal for so long, even if we are very explicitly confronted with their actions.

What’s more, sports in general—and football in particular—have an integral and emotional center in our culture. For many people, football is a more than a game, it’s a way of life and their role as a fan is an important part of their identity. In an article on fan response to badly-behaved athletes, Psychology Today notes:

“One explanation can be found by dissecting the athlete-fan relationship; as fans follow their favorite sports, teams, and athletes, their allegiance is created through the daily or weekly rituals engaged in that strengthen their fan relationship and positive view of the athlete. The bonds between the fan and athlete slowly become strong, cementing the fan’s dependency on sport as well as perpetuating the fan’s role within the greater sport culture. Thus, when athletes engage in bad behaviors, fans are forced to ‘deal’ which such situations emotionally as well as cognitively, due to their loyalty to the athlete or team. Moreover, the fan’s response may be a coping mechanism designed to buffer feelings of anxiety or confusion that may arise because of the fan’s conflicting thoughts surrounding the positive and negative images of the athlete.”

To some people, this isn’t just about domestic violence; it’s about their own loyalty to the team. Viewed in this way, it seems likely that, for some fans, it wouldn’t really matter what the sin was—it would always be explained away or divorced from the player’s career. After all, Rice certainly isn’t the first player to commit a violent crime and still enjoy support from fans.

But there’s an upside. While there are fans still willing to sport Rice’s jersey and trolls on the Internet willing to shift the blame onto Janay Rice, there are far more people openly and voraciously condemning Rice’s actions. Though it’s taken a while for some, this week the Ravens, the NFL, the media and many football fans have expressed horror and anger at Rice’s violence, and he is now being held accountable for his actions. It might not be 100% unanimous, but in the court of public opinion, what Ray Rice did is unacceptable as a citizen, as a public figure and, most encouragingly of all, as a professional athlete.

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