In an unusual move for him, Gov. Paul LePage recently used the bully pulpit of his office to weigh in on a situation that didn’t directly fall under his job responsibilities: the National Football League’s light response to one of its players being arrested for assaulting his now-wife. For those who might be unfamiliar with the situation, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was caught on camera in Atlantic City, New Jersey, dragging his unconscious then-fiancé out of an elevator. The NFL’s response, about five months later, was to suspend him two games, even after he was indicted for aggravated assault.
LePage, like so many NFL fans, was outraged by a punishment so minor that it seemed as if Commissioner Roger Goodell was condoning domestic violence. LePage, himself a victim of domestic violence as a child, has made its prevention a cornerstone of his administration. It’s been an area where he has been able to work across the aisle with Democrats to save the lives of Mainers. The prevention of domestic violence should be an issue that unites all of us in common cause, regardless of party or gender.
Sadly, this incident is not an isolated one: The NFL has a history of players committing serious crimes. Locally, former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez is being charged with a string of murders; the Patriots rightly cut all ties with him the moment he was charged. Two years ago, former Black Bear Jovan Belcher, then playing for the Kansas City Chiefs, killed his girlfriend and himself in a murder-suicide. Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy was convicted recently of domestic violence.
The NFL’s response to these situations has been maddeningly inconsistent. Any violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy gets serious responses, including season-long suspensions and lifetime bans. Meanwhile, more serious crimes get lighter punishments simply because they don’t involve drugs or alcohol.
Goodell would like to explain this away by saying his hands are tied by the league’s collective bargaining agreement, but that’s nonsense. When then-Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick was caught participating in illegal dog fighting, he was suspended indefinitely by the league, though he was later reinstated. This sort of disproportional response is what frustrates fans, the media and the general public: It’s hard to tell what the league’s reaction might be to off-the-field crimes.
Aside from the NFL’s reaction itself, it has also been disappointing to see the silence of team owners, coaches and other players on the issue. Their unwillingness to criticize the NFL’s decision undoubtedly stems from a fear of being fined or suspended themselves, but it gives the impression that they all agree with the league’s lax punishment. If they don’t — if they oppose domestic violence, if they think it should be taken seriously by the league, if they think Rice deserves a real punishment — they ought to speak up. They ought to be willing to speak their mind, damn the consequences. Force Goodell to start fining people left and right for being against domestic violence, and his ridiculous position will rapidly become untenable.
LePage is right to speak up about this issue: It is one where public officials taking a stance might well save a life. Victims of domestic violence need to know they are, in fact, victims of a crime. No matter what they might be told, it is not their fault, and all of us should work to reinforce that message.