NFL's next Ray Rice crisis is already here with Greg Hardy, Panthers

Greg Hardy is expected to play in Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions. (AP)
Greg Hardy is expected to play in Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions. (AP)

While the NFL drowns in a flurry of speculation about who in the league office saw the Ray Rice tape and when, another domestic violence crisis grows ever more pressing.

Carolina Panthers defensive lineman Greg Hardy was declared guilty by a North Carolina judge of assaulting his former girlfriend, Nicole Holder, in an incident that allegedly involved hair-pulling, slamming a toilet seat on her arm, and putting his hands around her neck. While he awaits the next step in his legal process, a jury trial, Hardy played in the team's season-opening game last weekend, and is scheduled to play this Sunday.

Hardy had an excused absence from Panthers practice Wednesday, but is expected to be available for Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions, coach Ron Rivera told reporters in a conference call. In an email to Yahoo Sports, Panthers director of communications Charlie Dayton said Hardy’s appeal "is part of the legal process in the state" and the jury trial begins with a presumption of innocence.

On Wednesday night, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson tearfully defended himself and his franchise at an awards dinner in his honor – an event that commissioner Roger Goodell reportedly cancelled out of.

"I stand firmly against domestic violence, plain and simple,” Richardson said. “To those who would suggest that we've been too slow to act, I ask that you consider not to be too quick to judge. Over the course of our 20 years, we have worked extremely hard to build an organization of integrity.”

Richardson was given an “award against indifference” on Wednesday, but indifference is what’s coming through. The league has frozen when confronted with red flags, rather than acting proactively in response to a clear warning. Doing nothing, as the Baltimore Ravens chose and as the Panthers are choosing, is not enough. Not anymore.

That's painfully clear in a letter Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti sent to season-ticket holders and sponsors on Tuesday. He began by saying the people of Baltimore "deserve an explanation," and yet he didn't provide one.

"Why didn't we act earlier?" is the right question, but it's never answered. Here is the key paragraph:

"In March, the prosecutor dropped the case against Janay [Palmer], but elevated the charge against Ray from simple assault to aggravated assault. At this point, we decided to defer action until completion of the court proceedings. We stopped seeking to view or obtain a copy of the video. We halted our fact-finding. That was a mistake on our part."

So why did the Ravens defer action until completion of the court proceedings? Why the paralysis?

Jerry Richardson (R), with commish Roger Goodell, defended his team on Wednesday. (Getty Images)
Jerry Richardson (R), with commish Roger Goodell, defended his team on Wednesday. (Getty Images)

The charge against Rice was elevated. It had been simple assault, which is often related to an altercation and charged as a misdemeanor. It turned into aggravated assault, which is classified in all states as a felony and often involves a deadly weapon or a serious injury.

Is it a guilty verdict? No. But it certainly is a tell that something terrible happened in the elevator at that casino. Goodell told CBS' Norah O'Donnell that Rice's version of the events in the elevator was "ambiguous." This elevation of a charge is not ambiguous. It means something potentially felonious happened to Palmer. That should have been enough reason to take a precautionary step: keep the arrested player off the field without cutting him or his pay. In the post-Ray Rice world, that’s a step that teams like the Panthers should be taking.

Instead, nothing was done in Baltimore, and nothing has been done in Charlotte. It can seem prudent to those who want to respect due process. But it looks callous and calculating to victims, and to fans who are now watching these decisions more closely than ever.

We're two years removed from a woman being killed by an NFL player in an episode of domestic violence. In December of 2012, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, and then killed himself at the team facility. That was the alarm that should have led to the six-game suspension now instituted by Goodell for domestic violence.

It didn't. And even though the Rice incident has the nation talking, the inaction continues at both the league and team level. Domestic violence matters will be reviewed on a case by case basis, says the league. That leads to more paralysis. And more of the judging Richardson fears.

So we have Greg Hardy likely playing on Sunday. And we have 49ers defensive end Ray McDonald likely playing on Sunday, despite being arrested for allegedly assaulting his pregnant girlfriend.

It's one thing if there is exculpatory evidence. If the 49ers or Panthers have reason to believe violence did not occur at the hands of players on their teams, that's a valid reason to wait. But a player being a nice guy is not reason to wait. A player's role in the community is not a reason to wait. A player's value to his team on the field is not reason to wait.

There has been plenty of hand-wringing over Ray Rice that was presented to the public. Bisciotti called him "a model citizen in the community and terrific teammate for six seasons."

That is not evidence that should be used to keep a player on the field after an arrest for domestic violence. There's always a fear of punishing a player for one bad decision, but that gives offenders way too much credit. To say that an offender acted completely out of character is an easy answer. It's more likely they acted completely out of the character they portray to the public.

And the public has a major stake in this. As the Charlotte Observer points out, $87 million in taxpayer money went into the stadium where Hardy will be featured on Sunday. The newspaper's editorial board is calling for fans to turn their backs on Sunday if Hardy plays.

"The Panthers can say they are letting the legal process play out," the Observer states, "but it appears they just want to bulk up their pass rush."

The Panthers owner abhors that kind of thinking. But letting the legal process play out after a judge has ruled looks like a transparent effort to make it all go away. He can’t afford that perception any more than Roger Goodell can. This problem is not going away in society, and it is not going away in football. It might be showing up Sunday in Charlotte.