Janay Rice still fighting to protect herself when no one else will

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports
Janay Rice, left, looks on as her husband, Ray Rice, speaks to the media in September. (AP)
Janay Rice, left, looks on as her husband, Ray Rice, speaks to the media in September. (AP)

It was a particularly poignant moment in a very trying interview: Matt Lauer asked Janay Rice about the inevitable day when she would have to tell her daughter, Rayven, about the night her mom was punched by her dad.

Janay Rice calmly explained in the Today Show interview that when the time comes, she would tell her child that domestic violence "is not something that she should tolerate."

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A lot of people may listen to that with frustration. How could she tell her daughter not to tolerate something that she herself forgave? And how could she insist that she is not a face of domestic violence – "not at all," Janay Rice said – when she so clearly is a victim?

But what seems contradictory is not. Janay Rice, unable to protect herself physically in that moment from her husband, has been trying desperately to protect her identity. She is protecting her identity as a mother, as a wife, as a daughter, and as a woman. She is fiercely working to buttress her strength after her husband put her in a position of helpless weakness.

There is nothing to dismiss or disdain about that. There is nobility and humanity in what she is doing. The shame in all of this is not how Rice is protecting her identity; it's in how so few men have fought to protect her.

During the interview, Lauer read Rice a passage from Robin Givens about the psychology of domestic abuse. Givens explains that her anger gave way to a moment when, all of a sudden, she found herself protecting her husband, boxer Mike Tyson, even after he hit her.

Lauer asked Rice if that resonated with her. "If anything," Rice said, "I was [Ray's] protector before this. From people with motives, people who wanted to take advantage of him. That was nothing new."

Janay Rice has protected her husband, and her own identity as a wife and mother, from the moments after she was hit. Even on the drive home from Atlantic City, she told Lauer, "in the back of my mind, in my heart, I knew the relationship would not be over. I know this isn't us, and it's not him."

It certainly was "him," but it didn't have to be "us." So Rice went ahead in her battle for her definition of "us." She held fast to her love story even though she had lost the power story. She appeared at a Baltimore Ravens news conference, which she admitted she didn't want to be a part of, and followed a "suggested script." She was urged by the Ravens, she said, to apologize for her part in her own assault, which she did. She attended a June meeting in the NFL offices, with commissioner Roger Goodell and members of his staff. When asked for her thoughts, she burst into tears and said, "I just want this to be over." She wrote an indignant message on her Instagram account, blaming the media for its attack on her family. Then she agreed to collaborate with the media on two interviews, one with Jemele Hill of ESPN and one with Lauer and the Today Show.

Matt Lauer, left, interviews Janay Rice, center, and her mother, Candy Palmer. (AP/The Today Show)
Matt Lauer, left, interviews Janay Rice, center, and her mother, Candy Palmer. (AP/The Today Show)

"I was ready to do anything that would help the situation," she said. "Help the way we looked in the media, help his image, help his career."

Again, this is not hypocritical. Rice's own mother, who was seated right next to her, tried even harder to extricate the victim label from the situation. "I did not raise a young lady," Candy Palmer said, "to be an abused woman."

It's clear to see: the shame is still there, even though there should be no shame at all.

"There's a huge shame element in domestic violence," said San Francisco-based domestic violence attorney Nicole Ford. "You're ashamed because you were raised to expect better of yourself than to be hit, that you were raised to be strong and independent. So when you're abused [emotionally, physically, etc] you tell yourself, 'I'm still that strong person that this would never happen to. Now I must prove to the world he's not that guy.' You also want to show you're so strong you can fix the man who's hurting you, that you can be strong for both of you."

Already an abused woman in reality, Janay Rice would do anything to avoid being an abused woman in perception. When asked if she had watched the video of the assault, she said, "I'm not going to let the public bring me back there."

It's easy to blame Rice, say she's in denial, or a money-grubber, or caught up in her lifestyle. That kind of victim-blaming is unfair. The real failure here lies elsewhere: with Ray Rice, with the Ravens, with the NFL, with the law, with society at large. Janay Rice had something taken away from her on that night, so of course she is going to push to keep control of everything else around her. It's the responsibility of men in power to defend her without absolving her husband of his wretched act. That still has not been done.

The Ravens should not have pushed her into that May news conference, as Janay Rice said the organization did. The NFL should not have placed her next to her husband in their disciplinary meeting. And Ray Rice should not have allowed her to come forward in this brave way without him doing so first: to apologize fully and explain his actions.

Janay Rice told Lauer that her husband was "in such shock" after the assault, which is why he dragged her so callously in the ensuing seconds. Perhaps Ray Rice will explain that in the next installment of the interview (to be aired Tuesday), but that part of the discussion should have come first. So many people are letting a victim protect her own interests, which in a way is as disturbing as the initial violation.

"I didn't think it was completely wrong for me to apologize," Janay Rice said of the Ravens news conference, "because I got arrested too."

That's a sad statement. What's sadder is that she still hasn't been disabused of that self-blame by her husband.

Making this all go away is the goal, and it just so happens to be the path of least resistance for all the powerful people around Janay Rice, so they simply let her lead the way. It's what everyone wants, right?

So if you have everyone in agreement, then the next step is to lash out against those who are not in agreement. Then it's us against them, and although everyone wants domestic violence to stop, it's more comfortable to shut "them" out. That's the troubling underside of this entire crisis: it's not just violence; it's domestic violence. The temptation of those involved is to keep it domestic, and keep prying eyes away. That's the inclination from the immediate aftermath of the violence until the end of the relationship, and it's a big part of why the crisis goes on. Everyone wants to slam the door and draw the blinds.

So we keep asking the wrong questions. It's not simply, "How do we protect women from domestic violence?" It's also, "How do we protect women after domestic violence has occurred?"

Nobody could have protected Janay Rice from her husband's assault. But a lot of people failed to protect her from what came next.

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