One comment from Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti on Monday perfectly captured where the NFL is on its sudden learning curve from the domestic violence dark ages toward a place of responsible awareness.
It was when he was asked about Janay Rice.
"She's still the one who's suffering the most," Bisciotti said. "She's still suffering because now she has an unemployed husband."
Yes, Ray Rice's wife is definitely the one who is suffering the most. But no, she is not suffering the most because she has an unemployed husband. She is suffering the most because she was punched in the face by the man she says she loves.
This isn't the first tone-deaf, borderline misogynistic comment we've heard from a member of the NFL community lately. It's just the latest, and perhaps the most revealing.
The good news is that the league and its owners have realized – to their credit – that domestic violence has been ignored for too long. That's part of what Bisciotti's words made clear on Monday. "The league never elevated domestic violence to the platform it should have been on," he said.
The bad news is that a lot of the prior obliviousness is still here. When asked about whether any women were consulted in his admittedly flawed decision-making process over the past few months, the Ravens owner veered into a joke: "If I can get [senior vice president] Kevin [Byrne] out soon," he said with a smirk, "maybe we'll replace him with a female."
Completely leaving female perspectives out of a domestic violence discussion was a failure for the Ravens, on more than one occasion, and Bisciotti made light of that. He seemed genuinely remorseful about how all of this happened, but was far too unremorseful about his own blind spots.
"I'm 54 years old," he said at one point. "I can't change on a dime."
That's troubling because he has to change on a dime. The whole league does.
Another example: Bisciotti expressed his fear that a zero-tolerance policy against domestic violence will make his players targets. But as we've learned through this entire crisis, the victim has very little to gain through a false accusation. It was Janay Rice who went to enormous lengths to protect her assaulter, including going through her sad appearance on the very dais where Bisciotti sat Monday. Domestic violence is rarely fabricated, yet Bisciotti's thinking will make many believe it can be and will be.
"This is going to be really, really easy to threaten [a player] and get some money," Bisciotti said, "because the minute they threaten in season, he gets cuts and suspended for six games."
Bisciotti went even farther, proudly informing the media that he has encouraged his players to be more paranoid in social situations.
"It is healthy to be paranoid," he said. "Every minute you're out, think, 'Somebody is going to put me in a bad situation.' If you think that way, you're going to be a lot closer to the man you want to be by the time you're out of here."
It's hard to imagine a young player becoming the man he wants to be by stereotyping strangers as threats. Again, Bisciotti is in the hazy middle: he's right to advise his players to be more cautious in public, but he's wrong to cast women as money-hungry demons. Saying Janay Rice suffered most because her husband was cut by the team only reinforces the idea of relationships as transactional. Domestic violence experts say assaults are about power and control, and Bisciotti is sending his players a message that women (and jealous men, too) are always conspiring to wrest power and control from famous NFL players. It's often the woman in a player's life who is trying to protect her husband or boyfriend from exploitative men. It's often the woman who should be trusted most.
Meanwhile, almost in the same breath, Bisciotti confessed to having almost no paranoia when it comes to his own players. Asked if he would be more careful to trust members of the team he owns, he didn't hesitate to wave off the idea.
"I'm not going to look at my guys and say, 'Which one's the next one to disappoint us?' "
In other words: women can be a threat to make something up, but not my Ravens.
That's telling, considering the news conference was set up to debunk what Bisciotti feels are mistruths being fed to ESPN by Ray Rice's camp. There is real reason to doubt Rice's honesty, as well as that of those advising him. So it's both farcical and irresponsible for Bisciotti to blindly trust his players and also advise them to watch out for liars who want to bring down his franchise. He himself wasn't vigilant enough: "I was not prepared to take the worst-case punishment against somebody I have incredibly loving feelings for," the owner said. "Because I care about him." If the owner is going to be more wary going forward, he should be more wary of everyone.
At this point, the one person most likely to wreck the reputation of the NFL is Roger Goodell, if the commissioner lied about seeing the videotape of Rice striking his fiancée sooner than he's claimed. Either the commissioner is fibbing or Rice is fibbing. Somebody is lying here, and it isn't a woman.
Goodell has taken the brunt of criticism for this mess, but Monday was a reminder of exactly what his "shield" is protecting. That, in an odd way, is an endorsement for keeping the commissioner in place. He may not get it yet, but he might be farther along than his bosses. When asked if he wanted Goodell removed, Bisciotti said no, insisting, "This is as good a chance for the league as any."
That chance is being anchored down by cultural biases even a candid owner doesn't seem to see. It's possible the NFL is finally on the right track, but we were reminded again on Monday just how lengthy that track really is.