Melanie Brzozowski is an event designer by trade, and a Baltimore Ravens fan by heart. Watching her favorite team each week has always been an enjoyable way to combine the two passions, so the dining room table in her apartment -- and all the food on it -- has always looked like a carefully choreographed art project.
Just not this past Thursday. Her heart simply wasn't in it. Ever since Monday, when the full video surfaced of Ray Rice hitting his future wife, Janay, in an Atlantic City casino elevator, and the Ravens' subsequent decision to terminate his contract, it felt like the whole city had been in an uncomfortable state of mourning. Brzozowski went to the store to try to get ready for the Ravens' prime-time game with the Steelers, but realized even the minor decisions suddenly felt fraught with meaning. "I went to buy some purple plastic cups, and just that simple thing, I hemmed and hawed over," Brzozowski said. "I thought, 'Do I really want purple in my house right now?' It's such a stupid thing to feel conflicted about, but that's how I was feeling. I didn't even want to put my jersey on."
How were people in Baltimore supposed to feel this week? Embarrassed? Betrayed? Angry? Indignant? Heartbroken? Defiant? There was a little of all that, to be honest, in dozens of interviews with women in Baltimore this week, many of whom are Ravens fans.
To most of the country, Rice may be remembered as one of the biggest pariahs in sports, and perhaps deservedly so. But it's a little more complicated here in Charm City, and understandably so. This wasn't just some stranger. This was a person who made Baltimoreans believe he was one of the most admirable men in NFL. Seeing that exposed as a lie felt like a personal betrayal here.
"It's been heartbreaking," said Wanda Joyner, a registered nurse who wore her Rice jersey to the game Thursday. "I'm a woman, and I've never been a victim of domestic violence. But I've had family members that have been. So I don't condone it at all. But I'm a Christian, so I know the concept of forgiveness. I can forgive the man, but not the act. I wish what the Ravens would have done was tell him right from the beginning, 'We're going to get you counseling, but you've got to go.'"
Is it OK to be furious with Rice, but still feel like he's been made the scapegoat for a much bigger problem in the NFL? Is it OK to be disappointed -- livid, even -- with how the Ravens handled the entire mess, but still want to cheer for a team that's deeply woven into the fabric of your city? Those questions, and so many others, have been weighing heavy on a lot of minds in Charm City this week. They've been whispered in doctor's offices, shouted in bars and debated vigorously in classrooms, coffee shops and everywhere in between. I know because I've overheard them at tailgate parties, and studied Ravens message boards like I was poring over a scholarly text. I even held my wife tightly in my arms as she cried in our kitchen after watching the video.
"It's hard to be a Ravens fan right now, even though I love them," said Kim Rose, who spoke while tailgating at M&T Bank Stadium. "I knew it happened, but when I saw the video, I was taken aback. When you see it, it's just so vivid. You see her head bouncing off the side of the elevator. You just think, 'This is not OK. Not at all.' I would never stray from my team, but Ray Rice was my favorite player. It hurt me. You just don't do that to a woman. You just don't do that to someone that you love."
It's easy to imagine the rest of the country gradually losing interest in Ray and Janay Rice in the weeks and months to come. No one wants to admit that, but it's the sad evolution of every controversy that takes place somewhere else, that happens to someone else. But in Baltimore, what happened in that casino elevator, and why we had to see a video of it to truly grasp the horrific violence that took place, is going to linger for a long time. Are there signs that Baltimoreans missed? Did that play a role in selling the Ray Rice myth? Is he the monster America thinks he is, or is the guy we thought we knew for six years -- the guy who raised money for kids with cancer, who spoke to schools about anti-bullying initiatives, who was friendly with the mayor?
"You're a Ravens fan; you're not fan of just one player," said fan Beth Valle on Thursday night. "Ray was a part of the whole team, but he's still an individual player. It's OK to still be a Ravens fan. Your loyalty doesn't change. The pride doesn't change. You're disappointed, certainly. But you're still excited and you're still moving forward with the team. How do I feel about Ray? I feel like if I say one thing, I'll be criticized, and if I say another I'll be criticized. Everybody makes mistakes. He's done a lot of good things. I have his jersey. Would I have worn it if he was playing? Probably not. That doesn't mean that I hate the guy. I believe that he's a good person, so I still wish the best for him."
Some people in Baltimore are defiant, and they're not afraid to tell you as much. It's a little uncomfortable to hear, but it would be a lie to pretend it doesn't exist. It's men and women, too. At M&T Bank Stadium on Thursday night, there were as many women wearing Rice jerseys as there were men.
"I feel like he was wrong, he should be punished, but I think it's a little extreme," said Michelle Mulcare at the stadium. "I think it's a little ridiculous that they've destroyed his life. It's almost like they're trying to wipe him from existence. How is he supposed to recover from that? I don't agree with what he did. I think it's horrible. But I don't think he should be destroyed over it. And I think they've destroyed him over it."
And how do you explain the complexities to your kids? I don't know that it's easy to talk about Ray Rice no matter where you live. But if you're a 12-year-old in Florida or California or Texas, Rice is probably just some short running back who used to wear purple on a team known for great defense and boring offense. But if your son or daughter is growing up in Baltimore, and their walls were plastered with Rice pictures and posters, and a Rice jersey was stuffed in their dresser drawer, wouldn't it feel a bit like someone you knew had let your kid down? That the memory of so many happy Sundays was tainted somehow?
"I talked to my son, Tommy, about how wrong it was months ago," Brzozowski said. "But I didn't show him the video. He's 12, and Ray Rice was his favorite player. I just couldn't. The whole thing is just sad. I think we're all a little heartbroken."