CORTLAND, N.Y. – Safety Calvin Pryor was asked about violence against women after his first training camp practice in his first season in the NFL. He could have avoided the question. He didn't.
"No one should put his hands on a woman," said the New York Jets' first-round pick. "That's the way I was raised. If you put your hands on a woman, it means you're scared to hit a guy."
If only Roger Goodell, Ozzie Newsome or John Harbaugh could make a statement like that.
Ray Rice's meager two-game suspension, levied by the NFL on Thursday for the running back's arrest for allegedly assaulting his then-fiancée Janay Palmer, is an embarrassment. So is the $58,000 fine, which is basically the price of a fancy team dinner paid by a rookie. Although the league has made it a priority to show its support of the fight against breast cancer, it has no real priority in the fight for women who can't fight for themselves. It's hard to reason why a man who hits his wife-to-be gets two games on the sideline while Terrelle Pryor got five games for "illegal" tattoos and Josh Gordon gets a full season for smoking marijuana.
But let's not get into counting games. Let's look at the more sinister problem here: the fact that the NFL's authority figures are meek when it comes to violence against women.
Newsome, the Ravens' general manager, and Harbaugh, the head coach, have consistently defended Rice since the incident where Palmer was shown on surveillance video unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator. Newsome saw the video of the incident and wondered whether a "different story" would emerge. Well, the Ravens tried to create a different storyline as Rice agreed to enter a diversion program that, upon completion, could expunge the charges that were filed against him. We all remember the cringe-worthy news conference the team staged, in which Rice framed his rehabilitation as a comeback story by using an analogy of getting knocked down and getting back up. Some women never get back up from domestic violence. But that message was not communicated then or now.
Rice could have permanently injured Palmer, and yet we hear none of that from anyone in an NFL shield. Harbaugh said, "I stand behind Ray; he's a heckuva guy" in his remarks Thursday. Shouldn't he be standing behind the untold women who suffer from abuse? Shouldn't he say something as clear and powerful as what Pryor said in his impromptu post-practice interview?
Instead, he had this to say:
Newsome's statement on Thursday was just as disappointing.
"We also respect the efforts Ray has made to become the best partner and father he can be," Newsome said. "That night was not typical of the Ray Rice we know and respect."
Rice has to prove his behavior isn't typical for the rest of his career and beyond for the Ravens and the community to believe it. To his credit, even Rice showed awareness of that in his statement, saying:
"My goal is to earn back the trust of the people, especially the children, I let down because of this incident. I am a role model and I take that responsibility seriously. My actions going forward will show that."
Too often, violence against women by football players is excused because these men play a violent sport. They are trained to hunt and hurt. But Pryor's point is profound: the fearlessness it takes to tackle is not displayed when a man hits a woman. Quite the opposite. Men who hit women are lacking in the character needed to succeed on a football field and in life. Men who hit women are behaving with cowardice where control is needed.
And here, the NFL is showing cowardice where it should show control. It would be one thing if commissioner Roger Goodell had a soft reputation. He doesn't. His reputation is that of a hawk – of someone who doesn't need the actual law to lay down the law. It's right there in the NFL personal conduct policy:
"It is not enough simply to avoid being found guilty of a crime. Instead, as an employee of the NFL or a member club, you are held to a higher standard and expected to conduct yourself in a way that is responsible, promotes the values upon which the League is based, and is lawful."
The NFL would be nothing without the mothers who raise boys to become football stars. Those mothers are, to borrow from Kevin Durant, the real MVPs. And yet the women who will raise the next generation of stars, perhaps including Janay Palmer, get no stalwart defense from the NFL and the Ravens on this issue. Worse: Palmer was allowed to take some responsibility on her own shoulders in that news conference, even after she was dragged out of an elevator like a sack of bricks. A defenseless woman was inexplicably left to defend herself.
There are not two sides to this story. Hitting a woman is worse than taking a fertility drug, worse than using marijuana, worse than selling autographs for tattoos. That should be clear to every man who puts on a uniform, and every man in America. It should be clear in how the NFL hands out punishment for poor conduct. It's a shame that it's left to a rookie to say it for those who won't.