I hesitated to wade into these waters because of the potential for giving offense at the thought that I am trying to make this about me or that I am somehow being insensitive to the victim or ignorant of the the issues raised by what happened. I’m going to post this anyway because the story has a personal aspect to it that I feel the need to share. I hope you won’t judge me too harshly for it. — RR
On November 6, 1869, a team of male students from The College of New Jersey (later known as Princeton University) lined up against a team of male students from Rutgers University and played the first ever intercollegiate football game on the site of what is now the College Avenue Gym on the Rutgers University campus in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Rutgers won the game 6 to 4. For 137 years, almost to the day, that was the top highlight in the mostly unremarkable and, at times, ignominious history of football at Rutgers. Then, the 2006 team defeated the third ranked (at the time) Louisville Cardinals to officially end more than a century of futility and humiliation and the next day be ranked the sixth best college football team in the country. I went to Rutgers both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student. I remember that game, that night, because in the aftermath I wept actual tears of joy.
Ray Rice was on that team. More than that, he was one of the reasons, if not the reason, for the team’s success that year. In 2006, the Scarlet Knights, as Rutgers’ team is nicknamed, went on to the school’s first ever post-season bowl game win and Rice was named the conference’s player of the year after scoring 20 touchdowns and rushing for 1,794 yards that season.
That same winter, every sporting goods store in the tri-state area carried replica Rutgers football jerseys with Rice’s name and number 27 on the back. And boys and men of every age could be seen proudly attired in Rutgers’ famous scarlet colors with the name RICE across their shoulders. For Christmas that year, my nephew, Tim, received one of those jerseys from his grandmother. Tim, or Timmy as we all call him, was eight or nine then and already a fan. Not just of Rutgers, but of Ray Rice too. He was the kind of fan that when Rice entered the NFL draft after the 2007 season, his junior year, and was selected and signed by the Baltimore Ravens, Timmy also became a devoted fan of the Ravens. The kid lives in Connecticut, mind you. While Rice was playing for Rutgers and later for Baltimore, Timmy and I would text each other during games: “holy crap did you see Ray hit that hole and then blow up the safety??” That kind of thing. We always referred to him as Ray. As if we knew him. We were fans. Timmy loved and idolized the powerful halfback who chewed up yardage and scored touchdowns like defenses were made of nothing more than a stiff, afternoon breeze. I admired the athlete who had helped to fill me and so many of my fellow alumni with renewed pride and the vicarious bit of prestige that comes with having attended a school that was now no longer talked about as a laughing stock, but as a respected competitor on SportsCenter.
When the story was first reported that Ray had struck his then fiance, Janay, and knocked her unconscious, I was shocked. I was deeply disappointed in Ray and, despite my appreciation for him as a player for my beloved Alma mater, I too felt that his punishment by the NFL had been too lenient. Then, when the tape of what actually happened inside that elevator came out, I was sickened. I felt terrible for Janay and hoped that she was, and is, safe. I was appalled at the thought of league officials, who must have surely seen the second tape, having only denied Ray two game checks as reprisal. And then my disappointment turned to anger towards Ray. But I also felt sad. And confused. I felt bad for Janay, of course, but I felt bad for Ray too and that felt wrong. Why should I feel any sympathy for him? He had done an awful thing and he was being punished for it as he deserved. But his football career was over and I couldn’t help myself and feeling that way made me feel even worse.
Then, yesterday, I figured it out. I didn’t feel bad for Ray. I felt bad for me. The sadness I was feeling was for the end of an illusion that I’d been living under. One of my heroes turned out to be unheroic. He turned out to be human. Flawed. Violent.
Timmy, who is now a high school, multi-sport athlete, and I haven’t spoken since the news of the assault first came out. I’ve meant to ask him how he feels about it many times, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to actually text or make the call. I didn’t know what to say. I still don’t. But Timmy and I are going to have to talk about it because we’re going to be seeing each other in a couple of weeks so I need to figure it out.
I’m sure that we will commiserate in our disappointment and disgust over Ray’s actions. I imagine that we will also talk about the cynicism and duplicity of Roger Goodell and the NFL. But I know that I will need to say more. I will need to express my concern for Janay and while doing so make the point to Timmy that the lesson here is not only is it wrong to ever strike a woman, but that he needs to know that women everywhere and every day live with the threat of violence against them by men and that his responsibility, our responsibility, is to do whatever we can to help end that. I will have that conversation not only with him, but with my sons. And I will encourage them to do likewise with their peers and, eventually, their own sons. I will tell them that I don’t judge Janay and neither should they for her choice to stay with Ray and support him. She was the victim and she is allowed to decide how to live her life going forward. I will tell them that the right thing happened to Ray Rice because of what he did and that I hope that he gets help in managing his anger so that it never happens again, but that he no longer deserves my admiration. I will also tell them to save their admiration for the men in their lives who live the values that they share and that matter to them, for men who do right and do right by others and not just for the guys who hit home runs or score touchdowns.
And then I’ll sneak Timmy and me a couple of beers and we’ll talk about whether Gary Nova will finally step up and play like a big-time college quarterback and what we think of Rutgers’ chances now that they are in the Big 10 Conference. It’ll be like before…well, almost. And that’s okay.