This spring, Ray Rice was asked to speak to the members of the Rutgers football team before a spring practice. The former NFL running back was somber and laid bare his experience in the past year and three months, sources say. These players knew his history as a star on the field, and as the main event in a dim elevator video, where a punch leaves his then-fiancée unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator. Since then, his life has become an open book.
"One or two bad decisions and your dream can become your nightmare," Rice told the players. "And I lived it."
Since hitting his future wife, Janay, in February 2014, Rice has admitted culpability and completed every court- and NFL-mandated step on his path. Yet the truth is, Rice doesn't get asked to tell his cautionary tale much. Perhaps it is still too fresh. And he isn't part of an NFL team right now, despite a career that would generally be enough for someone to take a flier on him for a training camp. Part of this is due to his age (28) and recent stats, but more may have to do with his new title.
"Here I am, the poster boy of domestic violence," Rice has told friends.
Don't feel too sorry for him. Rice is in this no man's land because of his own actions. But let's consider his situation, which is a perfect test case for a difficult question: What should the path look like for NFL players to come back from a domestic violence incident?
A horrific night of assault doesn't have to be the final word in Rice's story -- and that's according to many with deep roots in the anti-violence community. Rita Smith is the executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence and is now a consultant to the NFL.
"I firmly believe in second chances," Smith said. "Particularly for communities of color, you can't just throw people away."
That's part of what makes domestic violence such a difficult crime for the courts. Relationships do survive, and batterers can change patterns of behavior. That makes it important for sports leagues to not simply discard athletes.
Those facts don't mean that domestic violence shouldn't be punished -- something the courts failed to do in Rice's case -- but in some ways Rice has become the embodiment of a man who abused and came to understand his actions in the framework of a societal problem.
"In many ways, he did everything we asked of him," one NFL front office staffer said.
Has Rice changed, or is his remorse a response to the thought of losing his career and stature? It's a question some in the NFL wanted an answer to, so league consultant Tony Porter of A Call to Men, a predominately male group of anti-violence crusaders, went to the home of Ray and Janay Rice to sit down and talk about the last year. Porter's takeaway: Rice has started doing the work that could make him a valuable voice in domestic violence prevention.
"I believe he has a very, very important message," Porter said. "Men have to be part of the solution for ending sexual assault and domestic violence. If women could have done it on their own, they would have done it already. A man like Ray Rice, with his influence as a professional football player ... [he can] have an impact on ending domestic violence. I'm a regular Joe, I talk to boys and they listen. If Ray Rice talks to boys, they will line up to listen. With Ray Rice being remorseful and humble about it since the incident, he's positioned to take a terrible, terrible act and make a huge impact."
So if not Rice, who is getting those second chances in the NFL? Well, you have Greg Hardy, a man found guilty of assaulting and threatening to kill his girlfriend before prosecutors say he settled the case. The Cowboys picked up the dominating pass rusher, vowing to rehabilitate him. Hardy categorically refused counseling while the NFL reviewed the conduct violation, only agreeing to go when it was mandated as part of his 10-game suspension package.
You also have Ray McDonald, who was suspected of domestic violence and a separate case of sexual assault (still pending) while with the 49ers. He was cut by San Francisco, but McDonald was able to sweet-talk Bears chairman George McCaskey (an NFL code of conduct committee member, believe it or not) into giving him a second chance. McDonald said he had "two incidents where I didn't feel like I did anything wrong." At the end of May, McDonald was arrested not once but twice, and the Bears cut ties.
Then look at Adrian Peterson, who is back with the Vikings after sitting out nearly a year due to child abuse charges (he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor reckless assault). During his case, Peterson made the argument that he was just punishing his son the way that he had been punished, as if cutting a child's testicles while whipping him was a legitimate form of discipline.
Peterson added a more introspective layer to that last week at Vikings OTAs, where he discussed how therapy has affected his parenting.
Still, compare that to the way Rice approached his situation. Rice apologized -- inadequately at first -- but that improved as he went through counseling. And he took immediate responsibility for his actions. Because it was caught on video, Rice didn't have the luxury of claiming that it didn't happen, or that it was self-defense. There were those apologists out there, but Rice didn't publicly make that case on his own behalf.
"In order to change any big thing in your life, you have to take responsibility -- you can't just turn the page," said Lonna Davis, the director of children and youth programs at Futures Without Violence, a nonprofit devoted to ending domestic and sexual violence. "And you need to be listening to the people you've hurt. If they need to tell you something 100 times, you need to listen 100 times."
Rice went to religious-based counseling with his wife and attended court-mandated anger management classes. Neither is necessarily the textbook prescription for a case like this -- domestic violence experts don't agree that anger management helps abusers, and would likely ask that Ray and Janay be counseled separately -- but Rice has by all accounts dedicated himself sincerely to the process.
Still, he is a pariah, a man whose enduring legacy is a grainy elevator video.
There was well-deserved outrage when the punch became public, including from me and other writers at espnW. There was plenty for Rice, but also for a court that didn't meaningfully punish the running back, and for an NFL that bungled every step of an investigation before issuing a two-game suspension that was almost unanimously panned as being weak. This tragic comedy of errors has, however, led to a much larger profile for an issue that was frequently misunderstood and uncomfortable for many to talk about.
Said a source close to Rice and his family: "The education that people have in the wake of Ray's mistake -- while the action itself was horrible, the response has been, if you do something wrong, you can do something right."
There are those in the NFL who want to offer Rice a hand up. Even if he isn't being picked up by a team -- the Bills went to lengths to deny a report they were looking at Rice -- there are those in the NFL who think Rice can still deliver a powerful message whether he is playing for a team this season or not.
Ray and Janay have both had a few invitations to speak about the impact Ray's punch had in their lives. They do it quietly, not wanting to be seen as orchestrating some redemption tour as a path back to football. Rice has told people that he is in this for the long haul, because one day he will have to explain what happened to his daughter, Rayven, and he hopes to do it as a man making a difference in the way boys and men view women.
Rice has paid a high price despite an unconscionable lack of legal consequences. We all saw what happened, perhaps more often than we wanted, and it defies reason to think you can be punished more in this country for driving with a broken taillight.
Yet, it was right that Rice was disciplined despite the legal system. He lost his job, salary and endorsements. He faced a public backlash -- even if he as cheered by Ravens fans as he returned to training camp last summer.
But unlike Michael Vick's imprisonment for crimes related to dog abuse, Rice's punishment didn't come with an end date.
We like our comeback stories to have a more concrete beginning and end. But in this case, there is no deadline or anniversary that we can stake a fresh start to. But even the harshest punishment in the new and improved NFL code of conduct wouldn't banish Rice for what he did. And it wouldn't disqualify him from being a relevant speaker on the issue given time and education.
As more than one person put it, If you said a year ago that I'd think Ray Rice deserved another shot at the NFL, I'd have laughed.
There is always the possibility that, like McDonald, Rice has fooled the people who would like to see him succeed in some way again. If Rice returned to the NFL, the same potential triggers would be in play, potentially undoing the change he has worked so hard for.
There are those who fear abusers who trick you into thinking they are changed, said Davis, and there are those with great hope for the ability of people to change. "All hope and all fear -- we really need a combination of both," Davis said.
As one person with roots in the domestic violence community said, it would take real courage for an NFL team to bring Rice in knowing there will be a backlash -- there will be an elevator video pulled out of the file cabinet. It's a kind of courage that goes a little deeper than bringing in a pass rusher in his prime.
But it may be time.
Even if it doesn't happen on the field, it's time to stop treating Rice like he's irredeemable. Because those who listen say he is proving that he can learn.