Some facts that make no sense, even though they make perfect sense: Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Justin Blackmon is serving an indefinite unpaid suspension. His crime is smoking a bunch of weed, an issue that got him arrested for a third time on Wednesday. Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice will serve a two-game suspension to start the 2014 season. His crime is knocking out his then-fiancee, now-wife, Janay Rice. The terms of both suspensions make no sense, because smoking weed is smoking weed, and intimate partner violence is proof that words aren't enough to capture our worst actions.. The terms of both suspensions make perfect sense because the NFL is a microcosm of the society that allows it to exist.
The NFL suspending Blackmon indefinitely is the result of the league's strict drug policy, which mirrors the strict drug policies that have resulted in black people making up 59 percent of drug offenders in state prison, despite accounting for just 12 percent of drug users. The leniency of Rice's suspension -- two games less than Blackmon's first drug policy suspension -- is magnified by the fact that the number one killer of black women ages 15-34 is violence by a former or current intimate partner. The numbers say black drug users are subject to disproportionate incarceration while endemic violent crime against black women goes on without intervention. The injustice is only magnified by the scope of the American prison state -- home to both the world's highest incarceration rate and prison population. Somehow, the most aggressive criminal justice system there is manages to simultaneously target and ignore black people. For all the righteous anger rightly aimed at the NFL, their decision making in matters of justice is identical to what already constitutes justice in this country.
Any punishment the NFL ever hands down is a performative act anyway, nothing more than PR designed to assuage the public rather than set things right. Even if the NFL were to somehow transcend the biases it reflects, there is no punishment it can hand down that would set things right. Still, two games is a ridiculous gesture from an already morally bankrupt league. Set aside the current display of social myopia, and the NFL is still the same league that says "Redskins" is not a slur while spending millions to conceal football's brain trauma epidemic. This is not altogether surprising behavior for a multi-billion dollar enterprise looking to triple revenues by 2025, but the strongest arm of sports media has abdicated its role as the counterweight.
ESPN's estimated value now stands at $50.8 billion, which makes it by far the most powerful sports media company in the game. Part of its value is tied to the NFL, with which it holds a $15.2 billion television rights deal. This is relevant because ESPN NFL reporter Adam Schefter went on the air right after news broke of the Rice suspension and said there would be controversy over whether the NFL had been "lenient enough" in its decision on Rice, which registers as nothing more than a subservient media member subverting popular outrage. And then there's ESPN's galling decision to report Rice's crime as an "altercation," a word so vague that it can be glossed over without actually considering the image of Rice dragging his wife's limp body with eerie calm. Right out of the gate, a changed word here and a bit of messaging there is all it takes for media to take a damaging story and recast it in a faux-neutral light.
Meanwhile, the story was already being recycled into fodder for ESPN's "Embrace Debate" shtick, which normalizes the idea that any viewpoint is valid on any issue, i.e. the dumbest idea ever and one that makes it impossible to meaningfully criticize anything. For every superb journalist on the ESPN roster, and there are plenty, it's retrograde sports-screamers like Skip Bayless and dim automatons like Schefter that get the most air time. This brand of inconsequential sports talk, regardless of intent, sure makes for a fine way to distract the public from a story that makes both ESPN and the NFL look bad. While neither side is ever going to admit to a friendly coverage arrangement, they are financial partners invested in each other's success.
This time around, the process of covering their respective asses ended with both parties reifying the black community as subject to the worst of the prison state, even when outside the criminal justice system. In a country that considers justice malleable based on crime, gender and skin tone, it should be no surprise to see the same policy echoed by a white male owned business that relies on mostly black male labor to drive profits.
Perhaps next time -- and there will be a next time -- the NFL will offer something that can pass as just, but that's only meeting the standard of a society that defines justice based on gender and skin color. There is no excusing the NFL in any of this, but there is no excusing the society that makes the NFL possible.