If not the player, Ray Rice asks you to forgive the man
NEW ROCHELLE, New York -- It's a rainy spring afternoon, and Ray Rice is in the weight room at his alma mater, New Rochelle High School, where his red No. 27 Rutgers jersey still hangs from the cinderblock wall. He has been volunteering here for about a year, since he and his wife, Janay, moved back from Maryland, where he last played professional football.
While Rice was still beloved along the northern fringes of the Chesapeake Bay for his part in the Ravens' 2013 Super Bowl win, he couldn't stay, in part due to both idleness and pride. So instead, he's watching two upperclassmen compete in a vertical jumping contest, taking turns springing atop a progressively growing stack of circular metal weights. Teammates gather, eyes locked on the two young men, as the good-natured competition gets increasingly tense.
Three times a week, Rice makes the 20-minute commute from his home in Stamford, Connecticut, to volunteer with his old team. New Rochelle football coach Lou DiRienzo sees Rice as an effective communicator for these teenage boys, and Rice still relates to them. "His football nature comes out in practice," DiRienzo says.
Back to the stack of weights, the taller of the two competitors stands still while his fingers twitch, letting the height of the stack get into his head. When he finally jumps, he is just short. That's when running back Jared Baron calmly springs to the top of a column as high as his neck, and the room explodes. Rice leads the players and coaches in congratulating the winner. This is his team now.
There will be those who think that a man rightfully condemned for a shockingly violent blow to his then-fiancée's face in an Atlantic City casino elevator three years ago hasn't earned a second chapter.
How do you simply set aside that the man coldly stepped over the woman he had just rendered unconscious? Or forget the image of that man dragging her motionless body out of the elevator? How do you forget all the women who have been ignored as they endured their own abuse in silence?
For many, Rice is unforgiven, and unforgiveable. To them, he's a man who deserves to be frozen in time, stuck in the Feb. 15, 2014, video that captured the ferocious moment that altered not only his future but that of the league.
But for Rice, 30, and his now-wife, 29, in these three years they've built a life beyond that series of seconds in the elevator, albeit one in which his ties to the NFL are as a cautionary tale.
"It really is gut-wrenching to be considered the poster boy of it [domestic violence]," Rice says. "I made the worst split-second decision of my life that I'll be paying for a long time. But one thing I don't do is try to live in that decision. I try to teach about it now, and make sure that these young adults and young men, you know, never put themselves in that position."
IT IS UNLIKELY that Rice will ever play in the NFL again.
In July 2014, the NFL served Rice with a two-game suspension for his domestic assault against Janay Palmer. He pleaded not guilty to an aggravated assault charge and applied for a pretrial intervention program to avoid prosecution. But in September, TMZ obtained and released footage that showed Rice striking Janay in the face and knocking her unconscious, and within hours, Rice was cut from the Ravens and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced Rice's indefinite suspension from the league.
In subsequent days and weeks, speculation swirled around what the league knew about the video and when. It was a watershed moment, cracking open the possibility that the NFL looked the other way for the sake of a talented player -- and maybe had before -- exposing its consistently inadequate handling of domestic violence issues. Fans were outraged. One of the league's sponsors, Anheuser-Busch, considered morality clauses in contracts that would allow it to opt out of its agreements depending on the NFL's ability to reform. In response, the league quickly drafted a policy that called for a six-game minimum suspension in cases of domestic violence whether there was a criminal conviction or not. Rice's name became forever entwined with the NFL's ability, or inability, to police violence against women.
Rice appealed his indefinite suspension in September 2014 and prevailed in November that year, becoming once again eligible to play in the NFL. But no one picked him up.
After a Pro Bowl career, he had averaged just 3.1 yards per carry in 2013 and scored only four touchdowns at age 27. Even though he had played with a hip injury in that last season, teams used those stats as an open-and-shut case against him -- a stand-in for a conversation about whether he deserved an opportunity because of his past.
Still, he almost got tryouts. In 2015, Mike Pettine's Browns considered bringing him in. Pettine had been an outside linebackers coach on the Ravens when Rice started with the team, and he maintained an affinity for him. Ultimately, the Browns decided to not give Rice a tryout, and Rice understood. And it happened more than once -- a coach would express interest, but management wouldn't agree -- and Rice gets it.
"I just think once it got to ownership, that's where the decisions are made," Rice says. "And I'm very respectful of those decisions. I'm not looking at it like, I'm being alienated or anything. I'm looking at it as like, you know what? My name comes up, and they have to make a personal decision whether they're willing to give me a second chance, and so far, no one [has]."
One NFL owner said that, as a running back, Rice was in a position that doesn't age well, and that the risk of public backlash would be greater than the benefit of picking him up.
Rice says he desperately wanted that football bookend for his career. And he realizes that everything he does now -- from counseling to mentoring, even this story -- might look like a ploy to get back to playing.
He still wakes up every morning to train twice -- cardio and strength. He has a Peloton bike in his basement. He takes yoga and has dedicated himself to nutrition. A video of his workouts appeared online last year, a hint he was still around, still ready. Still, no takers.
"I'm not gonna give up on something that I know I'm really good at," he says. "But at the same time, football's not controlling my life. It's really not."
THE RICES LIVE in a woodsy neighborhood filled with deceptively expensive houses, ones that wouldn't be nearly as pricey if not for their proximity to New York City. They have a spacious kitchen with a large marble island that serves as a gathering place, and two friendly dogs, an Italian mastiff named Queenie and a little dog named Lady, inspect visitors.
Rice holds his infant son, Jaylen, on his lap, and the boy will not sleep. It's almost comical. Rice rocks the child until his eyes start to close, but then he wakes again. There's a familiarity that Rice has with this pattern, the way his son is fighting a nap. He cradles Jaylen, then rests his head on his shoulder. He seamlessly repositions Jaylen from one side to the other, gently rocking the boy as sleep finally arrives.
"He thought he was going to win," Rice says, smiling.
Rayven, a vibrant and insistent 5-year-old, has a personality big enough for a Broadway stage. She checks in on her brother and dogs when she gets home and draws pictures of her family.
Ray and Janay just got back from celebrating their third wedding anniversary in Mexico. They got married a month after the worst night of their lives, hoping that therapy and time would prove that night was an alcohol-fueled aberration. They affirmed that decision with another wedding in late July that same year.
They say they've changed the way they talk to each other in the past three years. When they have a disagreement, they have a pact to resolve it before they go to bed. They also say they watch tone, something that Ray has learned keeps an argument going far longer than the initial disagreement will.
"We live a simple life now," Janay says. "It revolves around our kids, honestly. Ray takes Rayven to school in the morning, and I'm with Jaylen, and we basically are enjoying life as much as we possibly can in the most simple way."
The house, their trip to Mexico and Rice's volunteering are all possible thanks to his NFL contracts and financial planners that now give him an allowance based on his investments and his six years in the NFL. (His last contract, which started in 2012, was for $35 million, but he didn't receive its full value.) If all goes well, Rice and his family can live comfortably for a long time.
But that Rice has a life at all is really because Janay decided to stay. Rice can't imagine what it would have been like if she had left. "I think my life would be in shambles," Rice says. "I'd be in a very dark place."
Janay says she has never watched the video. She stood by Rice -- physically in media conferences, and emotionally -- after the incident. She doesn't call herself a "victim." To critics, she was even the instigator. "I honestly don't think there was a day in the past three years that I didn't feel judged," Janay says. "I know I was judged. But it didn't really bother me, per se, because I know who I am and I know our relationship. I know who he is, so it was just noise at the end of the day."
And yet with every new parent she meets, every plan she makes for her own ambitions to open a clothing boutique, she wonders whether people are making the connection between her and the woman in the video. As much as Ray is tied to those images, Janay is also uncomfortably tethered to them, through no fault, no action, of her own.
"I live every day as if it didn't happen," Janay says. "At least I try to, at least for my kids, for our own sanity and for our relationship. If we continue to live in that moment, we'll never move on. So we have moved -- moved on a lot."
The day will come when she and Rice will have to sit down with their children and explain everything. That's going to be a difficult conversation, and they haven't planned the specifics of it yet, but they know it needs to happen before another child in school hears something and takes it to their kids. "I want them to be individuals," Janay says. "I want them to be independent. I want them to be happy with themselves and be proud of who their parents are and live a happy life without having people judge them just because of who their parents are."
BY MANY ACCOUNTS, Rice has been consistent and sincere in his rehabilitation since 2014. He has taken many of the right steps on a path toward recovery, including individual and couple's therapy, ongoing education about the issues and working to learn how to tell his story. But within the domestic violence community, there is ambiguity when it comes to thinking about Rice and his role going forward. Kim Gandy, president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, wrestles with the tangle of issues.
"I believe people can change," she says. "There's a long list of people who have done terrible things and get second chances.
"There are plenty of people who have repented for something and are still in jail."
Just being realistic, I was the first guy on video. And I know the video changed the dynamic of everything.Ray Rice
Similarly, in the three years since the elevator video, the NFL continues to struggle with how it handles players involved in acts of violence against women. And the list is long.
In 2014, for example, a North Carolina judge found then-Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy guilty of assaulting and threatening his ex-girlfriend. Hardy appealed, which, under North Carolina law, set aside the guilty verdict, and when his accuser didn't show up for the hearing, charges were dismissed. Hardy went on to play for the Dallas Cowboys for the 2015 season. He wasn't re-signed.
Tyreek Hill pleaded guilty to domestic abuse of his pregnant girlfriend while a running back at Oklahoma State in 2015; Kansas City drafted him in 2016.
Ray McDonald played for the San Francisco 49ers for a little more than two months in 2014 during a domestic violence investigation stemming from his Aug. 31 arrest. He was not charged. The team released him in December of that year after local law authorities said they were investigating him on suspicion of sexual assault. A grand jury indicted McDonald on one count of rape of an intoxicated person in August 2015. Just this month, a California judge dismissed the rape charge after prosecutors said the accuser refused to testify.
Frank Clark, the Seattle Seahawks' 2015 second-round pick, was arrested and charged with misdemeanor assault and domestic violence in 2014 after allegedly hitting his girlfriend. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in 2015 and was ordered to pay a $350 fine. (He was also sentenced to three days in jail but was given credit for the three days he spent in jail after his arrest.)
Last year, Giants kicker Josh Brown was suspended for a single game after he was arrested following an incident with his wife. But two months later, police documents showed he had admitted to domestic violence in letters, emails and a journal. Brown was cut by the Giants and hasn't been signed by another team.
The league faces its next test in Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon, who was arrested and charged with punching a woman in July 2014, leading to his suspension for his entire freshman season. In December 2016, his attorneys released video of the incident, showing Mixon hitting the woman with a similar viciousness as Rice. Last week, Mixon reached a civil settlement agreement with the victim. Though he was considered by many to be among the elite of this year's class, he was not selected in the first round of the NFL draft on Thursday.
But many cases aren't as cut-and-dried as those caught on tape, or those that result in a conviction. One team owner said it's easier to deal with unrepentant abusers than with cases like Rice and Brown, players who admit responsibility and accept help.
By most accounts, it seems that second chances are available for players accused of violence against women, just not for Rice -- at least not on the field.
"Just being realistic. I was the first guy on video," Rice says. "And I know the video changed the dynamic of everything."
The NFL announced this month that a video of Rice discussing his personal experience, its effect on his career and his family life would be a part of the league's presentation to players and staff every year, instructing them on conduct expectations. Anna Isaacson, the NFL's vice president of social responsibility, went to hear Rice speak at Rutgers before offering him the role along with several of her staff.
"He's been committed to ensuring young people don't make the same mistake that he did," Isaacson says, "and most critically, not seeing what happened on that video as an isolated incident. And understanding what domestic violence is and being able to talk to that. That's critical to seeing his learning and accountability.
"You don't see that with everyone, and we've watched that over the last three years," she says. "It's not to say that we know where his journey is going to end, I think his journey is very much open and ongoing, but he's been making a lot of good decisions from that point."
Still, with hope comes caution, says National Coalition Against Domestic Violence executive director Ruth Glenn: "He's got a lot to prove to a lot of people."
And he's trying. Rice has told his story to the football teams at Ohio State, USC, Rutgers and numerous high schools -- his mistakes, his lessons learned. That's Rice's job now, albeit unpaid. His penance is using his most regrettable moment as his path forward.
"I think a lot of people just had that football side, that you only can think of me as someone that was making millions of dollars -- that I was on TV, I was blessed and privileged," Rice said. "I'm not looking for an excuse, but I'm a human being. I know what life is now, and I'm a father and I'm a husband and I'm a person.
"So if you don't want to see me on the football field, that's fine, but if you can have forgiveness, just forgive me as a person," he says. "Judge my heart. My heart's in the right place, and my heart's into helping people."
IN GENERAL, ABUSE is not a singular incident. Although Rice and Janay have maintained that there wasn't other physical violence, Rice says he has identified previous behavior that constituted nonviolent forms of abuse. He talks about that to the groups he addresses.
"I understand it more now better than ever," he says. "I think the physical part of it is the only thing that really gets talked about, and I don't think it's fair that everything else gets left out. It's emotional, verbal, financial abuse. ... There's no place for it."
The NFL, for its part, has partnered with some domestic violence groups, directing resources to a field that struggled to find funding -- such as a five-year, $25 million commitment made to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, or individual team donations such as the Ravens' $400,000 to One Love Foundation, an organization founded in memory of a University of Virginia lacrosse player who was killed by her ex-boyfriend. The NFL's social responsibility group has contacts in every NFL city and meets with them regularly.
Public opinion on the matter is shifting, as well. Where fans were once content to look the other way when it comes to off-field behavior, a recent HBO Real Sports/Marist Poll found that 87 percent of NFL fans don't want their team drafting a player with a history of violence against women. And Indiana University last week implemented a policy that would disallow incoming students or transfers with a documented history of sexual assault from receiving athletic scholarships.
As of last week, at least six of 11 teams interviewed had removed Mixon from their draft boards, but with the draft's second through seventh rounds happening this weekend, there's still an opportunity for someone to pick him up.
In the end, this isn't just about Ray Rice. And it's not just about the NFL. Whatever becomes of him, men and women still suffer under intimate partner violence at an alarming rate -- one in three women and one in four men have been victims of some kind of physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime, according to a 2010 Centers for Disease Control report. And behind each of those incidents is a person who must also try to move forward -- not in contrition, but in healing.
"I still see myself as the same normal person," Janay says. "If anything, in hindsight I look at it, and I wonder, how did I even get through the past three years? I commend myself for being strong for myself, for being strong for my family. I still look at myself as the same Janay."