It's been nine months since Ray Rice knocked out Janay Palmer, then his fiancée, in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino and the public saw the video of Rice dragging her unconscious body into the hallway; eight months since Palmer married Rice; four months since commissioner Roger Goodell announced Rice's two-game suspension; and two-and-a-half months since the video of Rice punching out Palmer in the elevator became public and Rice was suspended indefinitely from the NFL.
On the surface, not much has changed. Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy -- who was convicted of domestic violence over the summer but is appealing the verdict and awaiting a jury trial -- was taken off the field and put on the commissioner's exempt list. However, he's still being paid. Ray McDonald, a San Francisco 49ers defensive end who was arrested on felony domestic violence charges in August, avoided charges by the DA and any discipline by the 49ers or NFL.
Rice was in court appealing his suspension last week. Although the verdict hasn't come out yet, it's possible that he's going to be reinstated.
On Tuesday, the NFL announced that they were suspending Adrian Peterson for the rest of the season without pay due to his indictment on child abuse charges. Peterson's situation differs from Rice's because Peterson had previously been on the commissioner's exempt list this season and had not yet been disciplined by the NFL, whereas Rice's indefinite suspension came after his two-game suspension. However, this does indicate that Goodell and the NFL are taking incidents of abuse more seriously. The NFLPA is appealing the suspension on behalf of Peterson.
Meanwhile, there has been no dip in the NFL's popularity; TV ratings are as strong as ever. What may even be more depressing is that viewership among females has actually increased this year. Very quickly, things on the field in the NFL are moving on.
But there's no doubt that since TMZ released the in-elevator tape in September, domestic violence has been a bigger part of our national conversation. Suddenly, a topic that has been stifled by silence and shame is getting at least some of the attention that it deserves.
"An old saying is that a picture is worth a thousand words," Dwayne Bray, a senior coordinating producer for ESPN said in a phone call last week. "In this case, video is sometimes worth a million words."
Bray was the producer of a one-hour Outside the Lines special that recently aired on ESPN: "Domestic Violence and Sports: Out of the Shadows." The special covered the crime from all angles: Reporters explored the history of domestic- violence discipline in the NFL, ex-Denver Broncos wide receiver Vance Johnson candidly talked about his past as an abuser and, most importantly, victims had an opportunity to tell their stories. The show opened with a montage of women (and one man) describing their attacks while 911 calls played in the background. During the special, Shawnda Wilkinson, the ex-wife of former NFL player Dan Wilkinson, described her abusive relationship in detail.
It was a powerful, unsettling look at the many faces and facets of domestic violence. And while it only scratched the surface, it felt like progress. After all, so often victims are completely missing from discussions about athletes and domestic violence.
The piece was much needed, and it might not have been possible in a prior climate. "Absent that video in Atlantic City, we wouldn't be having this conversation tonight, we all know that," OTL host Bob Ley said during the special.
Bray's experience producing the program backed that up. OTL reporters had been searching for victims to tell their stories since the video of Rice dragging his fiancée out of the elevator was released in February, but kept running into roadblocks.
"The first Ray Rice video had zero impact, because up to the point where the second video came out we had some of our best people on it for seven months and they really couldn't get [any victims] to talk," Bray said. "I think the second Ray Rice video was a game changer.
"I think a lot of victims are really looking at it now, like, I need to come out and I need to talk, that's the only way we're going to have progress and educate people. It has really helped to get people to tell their stories."
That seems to be the consensus -- that while what Rice did was horrific, the fact that the video was released has created awareness and unearthed a discussion that needed to happen. Perhaps out of something bad can come some good.
Unfortunately, it's far from that simple. Nardya Morton, a domestic violence survivor who now helps other women who are suffering, said that it's important that we remember what is actually happening in that video: Janay Rice is being beaten.
"How do you think she felt when they played that video? Nobody cares about that. [It just victimizes her] over and over again," she said. "People think domestic violence is just getting beaten up. It's mind games. It's psychological.
"The media, do you think they really care? No, this story was ready to sell big bucks, and it did," Morton said. "They didn't ever stop to think about what that woman is going through. She pulls herself together… and is living a life, and here it comes back again."
Morton brings up a crucial point that has been largely missing from the media's coverage since September. The elevator video has become a symbol for all domestic violence, but as we become desensitized to it through repetition, it's easy to forget that these are real people who are truly suffering.
Nobody deserves to be punched out by a domestic partner, and nobody deserves to have everyone across the world watching them be abused over and over again like it's a movie outtake.
There's a fine line between raising awareness and trivializing and sensationalizing what one woman went through, and it's one that the media has crossed time and time again over the past couple of months.
However, it's also worth noting that secrecy and ignorance doesn't do anyone any good. For people around the world who were far removed from the problem of domestic violence, the video did serve as a much-needed wake-up call. This is certainly true when it comes to Goodell and the NFL. Goodell's initial two-game suspension of Rice was an embarrassment, and it proved that the NFL had not made any progress in dealing with domestic violence in almost 15 years.
As OTL reported, it used to be that players guilty of domestic violence didn't miss a down in the NFL. It wasn't until 1997 that the NFL even had a policy for domestic violence, and nobody was suspended until 2000. Since then, OTL found that 48 players were guilty of domestic violence according to NFL guidelines -- 27 were never suspended, and 15 sat out merely one game.
"We wanted to look at the history of how the commissioners of the NFL traditionally handled domestic violence," Bray said. "There was this notion this summer that if you're an NFL player and you get caught smoking weed or you get a DUI, you're certainly going to get disciplined harder than you would if you hit a woman.
"If you've been around sports for any amount of time, you'll know that the only hammer that these teams have is playing time, even more-so than money. If you take a player off the field, you get their attention even more than if you fine them."
The NFL and the NFLPA are still trying to come to an agreement on a new domestic violence policy for the NFL. They haven't even gotten far enough along in the process to call them negotiations, the talks are still just that -- all talk. And while Goodell has finally added some women to its advisory board on domestic violence, it's unclear whether they are reaching out to victims in this process.
There's a public clamor for a no-tolerance policy, and many are appalled that players like Hardy (and Peterson) are still being paid as they sit out games on the commissioner's exempt list. That's why firm and clear rules that put an emphasis on education and rehabilitation will help solve so many problems -- teams will have rubrics to follow, players such as Rice and Peterson won't have so many question marks surrounding their requests for reinstatement, and the process of discipline can, from head to toe, become more transparent.
But all of that is much easier said than done, and although it's infuriating to see the inaction, it's important to be patient. There's nothing simple about justice, and a one-size-fits-all approach is rarely appropriate, especially in dealing with the inner-workings of intimate or familial relationships. While nearly everyone agrees that the NFL needs to do more than they've done in the past, Morton stresses that discipline is still a delicate balance.
"[The Rices are] working it out, they're a family," Morton said. "Now you're going to take his livelihood, which could possibly piss him off, which could bring it on again.
"You have to be careful about disrupting the family structure; know what you're dealing with and know how to deal with it. People who assist other people must be educated on the cycle. They must be educated on so much. I'm not saying you've got to go out there and become a psychologist, but you've got to know how the mind works."
Over two months after we all saw what happened in that elevator, awareness of the domestic violence epidemic has certainly increased, which is a good thing. But as we all clamor to talk about the issue, it's key to remember the most important part of a conversation: listening.
After all, it's far from out of the question that next year we will see Rice, Peterson and Hardy all back on the field. The show will go on. It's up to all of us -- the NFL, the players, the coaches and the fans -- to learn from this so that next time, the outcome is different.