Laslo Boyd – Rule #1: It’s Always the Cover-Up

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By: Laslo Boyd 

The second rule of scandal is: People always forget Rule #1. And make no mistake about it, both the Baltimore Ravens and the National Football League have been engaged in an ongoing cover-up of the Ray Rice affair. As is so often the case, reality has caught up with them with the release last week by TMZ of the infamous “Elevator Video.”

It’s hard to imagine how these two organizations could have handled their public response to Rice’s case more ineptly. If you didn’t know better, you might think that they had taken as their guidebook the approach that Penn State took to Jerry Sandusky’s abuse scandal. In each instance, protecting their image (and the huge amounts of money that rode with it) seemed to be the paramount value.

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti’s letter to Ravens fans acknowledged that the leadership of the Ravens erred badly in how they handled the matter. His interview in The Sun on September 11th struck the same regretful tone. That’s a start, though not nearly enough. Give Bisciotti credit for not hiding behind legalese or a bunch of excuses. However, the organization needs to do more than admit that it handled the case badly.

Remember that, after the NFL suspended Ray Rice for the first two games of the season, the Ravens took no further action against their star running back. The official word was that no one in the Ravens organization had seen the second tape before last week, but that begs two enormous questions.

First, why didn’t they make more of an effort to get the tape?  Bisciotti has said that they should have tried harder, but that’s obvious at this point. A full accounting of the steps that they did take would be a useful piece of transparency. Was this a case of willful blindness? Did they not want to know?

And even that, ultimately, is beside the point. What did they think happened in the elevator? What scenario could they have imagined leading to Ray Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée from an elevator?

In The Sun interview, General Manager Ozzie Newsome is quoted as saying that Rice had not lied to them about what happened. Shouldn’t that have been enough information to lead them to take further disciplinary action at that point? You didn’t need the second video to know that a serious case of domestic abuse had occurred in the elevator.

What will the Ravens do now?  Will someone be held accountable for the mishandling of Rice’s case? Will the Ravens take some pro-active steps to demonstrate that they are actually opposed to domestic violence? Absent concrete affirmative steps, releasing Ray Rice looks like little more than a public relations response to an ugly problem.

Many of the same comments can be made about NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the League Office. If published reports are correct — and those do keep changing — Goodell claims to have requested the elevator tape from law enforcement authorities, but not from the casino. And now there’s an Associated Press story asserting that someone did, in fact, provide a copy of the tape to the league office several months ago.

Goodell, who heads up the most popular sports enterprise in the country, has made a shambles of this incident from start to finish. Although the public backlash to the initial penalty led him to issue a new league policy on domestic abuse, it was hardly an act of courage on his part. It didn’t really take seeing the second tape for anyone who was paying attention at all to figure out what had gone on in the elevator.

The NFL is a money machine, so Goodell’s job is probably safe absent unequivocal proof that he saw the second video before last week.  Even then, he may squirm his way out of any real consequences, but he has greatly diminished his reputation, as well as that of the league.

That Rice wasn’t charged with a felony but, instead, allowed to enter a pre-trial program in New Jersey, raises serious questions about the actions of the prosecutor in the case, Jim McClain. At around the same time, a woman, Shaneen Allen from Pennsylvania, unknowingly violated New Jersey law by bringing into the state a handgun registered only in her home state. McClain denied her application to that same diversion program. Apparently not being a celebrity like Rice meant that she was not eligible for a pre-trial diversion program but is instead facing the possibility of time in jail.

These events highlight a culture in which domestic violence is not treated as the serious crime that it is and celebrities are given special preferences. That culture was on full display at the Ravens’ first exhibition game when Rice’s introduction was greeted with waves of cheering and applause and again at last week’s game against the Steelers when some fans showed up wearing Ray Rice jerseys.

Last Friday, a New York Times articles described a number of recent instances in which professional athletes continued playing in the immediate aftermath of charges of domestic violence against them. The Philadelphia Phillies General Manager, defending the decision to use Brett Myers in a game shortly after he was charged with assaulting his wife, noted: “He is our best pitcher.”  In that context, the belated punishment of Ray Rice might be seen as progress.

One irony of this case is that Rice was, prior to this, seen as someone who gave back to the community and was a positive ambassador for professional football. Whether he is able to do more than say he made a mistake will be worth watching. Is he able and willing to take a serious stand against domestic violence in this country?

You would like to believe that the widespread public discussion about Ray Rice’s abuse of his now wife and the response to that abuse would lead to real changes in the culture. History suggests that so-called “teachable moments” tend to fade away rather quickly and that relatively little changes. It would be great if this were an exception to that pattern.

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Laslo Boyd's professional experience includes serving as education advisor to the Governor of Maryland, Acting Secretary of Higher Education, senior administrator in several higher education institutions and university professor.  His work in political campaigns has involved strategic communications, public opinion polling, and development of position papers.  Dr. Boyd has consulted for a wide range of clients in higher education, government, and business.  He has provided political commentary and analysis in both print and electronic media.