Monday, September 8, 2014

The Ray Rice Saga: Hearing vs. Seeing

Ever since last spring, it has been well known that Ray Rice, 7 year veteran running back of the
Baltimore Ravens, had been in a fight with his then-fiancee (and now wife) in an Atlantic City casino.  What was known (and seen in a previously released video) was that she had slapped him, and he followed her into an elevator. It had also been seen in the same early video that Rice dragged his unconscious fiancee out of an elevator. Rice was charged for his actions, but before trial was accepted into a diversion program. The National Football League took a lot of heat from a number of groups for only giving Rice a two game suspension. Rice, according to all reports expressed remorse and sorrow over the incident. He was straightforward in interviews with the league and with his team about what went on--how he had hit his fiancee and she had been knocked out. She sat next to him when he held a press event to apologize. She married him. And though many were still very upset about the light penalty he had experienced, it looked like the matter was history.

Then a gossip website/TV show released the video from inside the elevator. No new facts were released. No new information was gained. But the sight of a football player throwing a punch and a woman being knocked unconscious, left on the floor, and then dragged out of an elevator became the big news story of the day. By noon, Rice was released by his team, and minutes later, suspended indefinitely by the league.

I have a number of reactions to all of this. First, I was in agreement that the league had done much too little to punish Rice's behavior earlier. Second, I think the punishment Rice now faces is correct. Third, I was impressed by his coach who said he had been talking to Rice, and that he and his wife stood ready to help Mr. and Mrs. Rice, and would be praying for them--hoping that this couple that seemed to be working on their personal matters would succeed.

But one major reaction I have is the power of what we see over what we know through written or spoken report. Ray Rice had told investigators from various places that he had punched his fiancee. According to one spokesman in the investigations, Rice didn't "sugarcoat it." But seeing him do what he said he did caused players who had been previously silent to jump on social media to call for his banning. Reporters on ESPN could hardly get air time fast enough to join the ban bandwagon.   Everyone, including the President of the United States, had to weigh in.

I don't disagree that he should be out of the game. What he did was horrendous. But why could our society not understand that truth from words, but only from images? I wonder what would have happened if a now retired football player who went to prison for killing a man would have been celebrated and idolized at his retirement or during his career if there had been video of the crime?

We have known for a long time that video footage has incredible power to change perspective, just as photographs did in an earlier era. They don't make something more true (and we know from sad history that photos and videos can be altered to promote false narratives). But our visceral reaction to visual imagery changes the equation almost every time.

In this case, the video of Ray Rice's assault will forever shape his life and our perceptions of him. It has, at least for now, ended his career. That is fair. It may make keeping his marriage together harder. That is sad. And having gone viral, we have no idea what cultural impact it will have. That is sobering.