Ray Rice And The Corruption Of Justice

Keith Naughton Public Affairs Consultant
Font Size:

The last week has been a public relations disaster for the NFL. The handling of Ray Rice’s assault on his wife has been a debacle. But the main problem this controversy exposes is not the insensitivity or bumbling of the NFL (and they handled this issue abominably), but that the NFL has no business taking the lead on matters of crime and punishment. That is why we have a criminal justice system.

The NFL is a private organization. It is designed to develop, manage and promote a product: football. As part of that mission it establishes terms of competition, mediates business disputes, negotiates with labor and seeks new avenues for growth. Like all business entities and associations, it is a profit-making entity. And it is the most successful sports organization in America.

The NFL is not a judicial system. Even in the areas in which it levies punishments and mediates disputes, the associated issues are related to league competition (rules of play on the field) or creating of a level playing field (drug-testing). The adjudicatory functions are internal and business related. The NFL is simply not equipped to handle criminal and civil matters between players, personnel, owners, and outside parties.

That’s why we have a criminal justice system.

And it is here where the failure with Ray Rice lies. The video evidence is unimpeachable; Rice is guilty of assault and battery – and pretty severe at that. It is a disgrace that the Atlantic County prosecutor let Rice off the hook with a misdemeanor (and may have given him special treatment). It doesn’t matter that his wife chose not to pursue the matter.

Victims should have input into their cases, but they cannot be permitted to have the final say. Prosecutors must put the public interest first – as in not letting a violent, self-entitled athlete think he’s got a get-out-of-jail-free card. Allowing criminals to think they can get away with their crimes leads to more criminal behavior. What will prosecutors say to the next person Rice smacks around?

If Rice had been jailed for assault, then the NFL could have simply piggy-backed on that punishment. Instead, prosecutors let Rice off the hook and now every commentator, blogger and pressure group is demanding that heads roll at NFL offices in New York, when they should be calling for heads to roll in New Jersey.

The fact is private organizations cannot compel testimony. Public authorities can. Lying to private individuals is not a crime. Evidence held by law enforcement may or may not be public. In short, any private investigation will necessarily be incomplete, replete with conjecture and possibly out and out false.

Even more importantly, there is a fundamental internal conflict. A judicial system does not exist for profit and is concerned with right and wrong. A profit-making business’ purpose and social utility is in seeking to profit by investing, innovating and employing. These goals may or may not coincide with social or criminal justice. It is up to the people through the government to decide what is right and wrong and establish the boundaries within which private organizations operate.

When self-righteous pseudo-intellectuals like Keith Olbermann complain that the NFL puts profits over justice, they are right. And that’s why we have a non-profit criminal justice system and a for-profit football league. The courts deal with crimes and the football league makes money.

When justice is not done, it is the fault of the government, not the NFL.

When we rely on private entities to do justice, their efforts will be driven by publicity, not right and wrong. Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers was convicted of domestic abuse – found guilty by a judge in a legal proceeding. Yet, Hardy played in Carolina’s opener. Only at the last minute this past week did the Panthers sit him. What is the difference between Hardy and Rice? Rice got caught on tape, Hardy wasn’t. So, Hardy got to play and Rice got fired. Is that justice?

Adrian Peterson is not playing because he was charged with child abuse in Texas. Peterson claims the alleged abuse was the same corporal punishment he experienced as a child. So, is Peterson a strict parent? Is he a monster? Is he the victim of an overzealous prosecutor or a vindictive family member? Nobody knows at this point, yet Peterson sits simply because he had the misfortune of being charged during football season.

These issues don’t matter to the braying mob in the media. Every sports yakker is in full-on groupthink throwing darts at Roger Goodell and the NFL.

Our criminal justice system is specifically designed to be insulated from the mercurial views of the public. If it wasn’t the jails would be teeming with innocent people. When you have a system driven by the immediate demands of the media and various pressure groups, you will have injustice. That is incontrovertible.

There is nothing wrong with the NFL or other leagues having a personal conduct policy or suspending players who commit crimes or engage in conduct that injures the league. But, it’s time to stop expecting sports leagues and other private businesses to take up the slack when the criminal justice system fails.  The institutions in our society perform best when they stick to what they know and are designed to do.

If we want better justice, we need to fix the justice system. And leave football to the NFL.