CORTLAND, N.Y. - Judy Harris Kluger was particularly galled at the two-game suspension handed down Thursday by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to Ravens running back Ray Rice, who was arrested in February for assaulting his then fiancee, Janay Palmer, at an Atlantic City casino. As someone who has spent most of her adult life dealing with issues involving domestic violence, Kluger thought Goodell needed to send a much more definitive message with a much more substantial punishment.
"[The suspension] is laughable," said Kluger, executive director of the New York-based Sanctuary for Families, an organization devoted to helping survivors of domestic abuse, sex trafficking and other forms of gender violence. "It sends a message to young women and to men that it is OK to do this, and the consequences will not even be a slap on the wrist. It's shocking to me that this is the reaction [from Goodell]."
Kluger has prosecuted domestic violence cases as an attorney, served more than 25 years as a judge in New York, including being the state's deputy chief administrative judge for court operations and planning, and heard multiple cases involving domestic abuse. She felt -- and rightly so -- that Goodell had an important platform from which to send a definitive message in Rice's case. But by giving Rice such a comparatively light punishment he delivered a pathetically weak message for such an insidious societal problem.
"What it does is it undermines all the efforts that are made by organizations like mine, and for people who understand how devastating domestic violence is to the person, the woman, the family," Kluger said. "It undermines all of what we try to get out into the media, and it says that, somehow, this is a minor offense."
Kluger is absolutely right about Goodell's decision; it clearly sends the wrong message, especially when taken into the context of other penalties the commissioner has handed down over the years. Goodell has stressed the importance of players' off-field behavior, and has been much more severe in his punishment of others. Former Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, who now plays for the Jets, was suspended indefinitely in 2007 for his involvement in an illegal dogfighting operation, which ultimately resulted in a two-year prison sentence. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger received a six-game suspension, which was later reduced to four games, after being accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old college student in Georgia in 2010. Unlike Rice, Roethlisberger was neither arrested nor charged with a crime, yet Goodell still sent a strong message under the league's personal conduct policy with the longer suspension.
He needed to make a similarly strong statement with Rice, but Goodell failed, and ultimately disappointed a large part of his league's fan base. Goodell wrote in a letter to Rice informing him of his suspension that "the league is an entity that depends on integrity and in the confidence of the public and we simply cannot tolerate conduct that endangers others or reflects negatively on our game. This is particularly true with respect to domestic violence and other forms of violence against women."
Goodell reportedly took into consideration that Rice was a first-time offender, that he has been a leader in the Baltimore community for a variety of worthy causes, and that Palmer, who is now his wife, made an impassioned plea on Rice's behalf. Rice was accepted into a pretrial intervention program and upon completion could lead to the charges being expunged. But in a league in which a player is immediately suspended four games for a positive test for performance-enhancing drugs, how can Goodell not deliver a punishment at least that severe -- if not more so -- to a player who was shown on videotape dragging his unconscious fiancee out of an elevator?
There's an obvious disconnect here, and Goodell failed to send the kind of message that would have resonated so much more -- to the players, to the fans and especially to other victims of domestic abuse.
Kluger was particularly troubled by reports of Rice's wife influencing Goodell's decision to hold back on a tougher suspension.
"There are a lot of reasons she could have said that, not the least of which is she's afraid of him," Kluger said. "It's the objective act, not what his wife has to say. Based on my experience, there are a lot of women who have gone into court and said they don't want [the abuser] prosecuted or arrested because they're afraid. That motivation should not have anything to do with the NFL's decision."
Jets guard Willie Colon, who was with the Steelers when Roethlisberger was suspended, acknowledged that it's a "fair question" to ask about the different sanctions the NFL can hand down, depending on the type of misbehavior. While not wanting to comment specifically on Rice's suspension, Colon said, "There are a lot of things that happen in this league as far as rules that are hypocritical. That's one example that needs to be talked about."
Colon also believes that Rice has already paid a substantial price for what he did. "The suspension is small compared to the fact that his personal business has shown up on ESPN. This is his wife being shown laid out [on the floor]. That's embarrassing. I think that's torture in and of itself. I think he has to find out whatever he can do to make it better. But as a man, just having that shown to America, would be enough torture for me."
Even so, the man who runs the league needed to send a much stronger message than the one he ended up delivering.