By Lindsay Rabalais
Ray Rice could be moving to New Orleans after being reinstated to the NFL.
Rice, a running back who previously played for the Baltimore Ravens, was suspended from the NFL in September after TMZ released a video of him dragging his fiancée (now his wife) out of a casino elevator after he had knocked her unconscious.
On Nov. 28, Rice won his appeal in arbitration and was reinstated to the NFL. He is currently a free agent, but there has been speculation about where he will play next – or if he will play again at all.
On Nov. 30, ESPN reported that the New Orleans Saints had inquired about signing Rice.
Head coach Sean Payton quickly shot down the rumor. “I think I would know if we’re interested in signing any player. But those are the ‘Sunday splash’ reports,” Payton told reporters.
Still, anything is possible.
If the franchise was considering signing Rice, they would deny knowing anything, according to Kristi Williams, former Vice President of Communications for the Louisiana Association of Business & Industry. “If the Saints were looking at Rice, they would claim ignorance,” Williams said.
Payton’s response was not an outright denial of the Saints’ alleged interest in Rice, and another team has yet to sign him. As of now, anything could happen.
If Rice were to don black and gold in the future, what kind of reaction could Tom Benson and his franchise expect?
When TMZ leaked the video of the incident in the elevator on Sept. 8, it started a national conversation about domestic violence. The hashtags #WhyIStayed and #WhyILeft dominated Twitter in the following days, with survivors of domestic violence sharing their stories. Scores of editorials were written about Roger Goodell’s bungling of the situation.
The debacle made many football fans – especially female fans – question their enthusiasm for the game and for the NFL.
“As a woman, it makes me question how I can support the NFL,” said Claire Biggs, a Louisiana native and Saints fan. “The NFL is a nonprofit organization. How many other nonprofits would be able to function in this way? … I definitely feel less inclined to watch or participate in anything the NFL does.”
The NFL attempted to rehabilitate its image by partnering with organizations that work to prevent domestic violence and serve victims, including the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. In October, NFL players also began appearing in PSAs for No More, an organization that aims to end domestic violence and sexual assault.
Still, this solution might have been too little, too late.
Williams said that the NFL should have had a crisis public relations plan in place for if a player was ever accused or convicted of a violent crime like domestic violence. “Timing is everything with PR and crisis response,” Williams said. “I equate it to bad clock management in a football game.”
It also does not help the NFL that football has a reputation – whether deserved or not – for promoting violence.
Statistically, the hours after the Super Bowl yield the highest nationwide numbers of reported domestic violence incidents in any given year, according to Amanda Tonkovich of the New Orleans Family Justice Center, an advocacy organization that works to prevent domestic violence.
Tonkovich also pointed to the aggressive nature of the game.
“Sports inherently has this masculine tendency. We don’t cry, we don’t get hurt, we kill the other team.”
Still, Tonkovich believes in the power of the NFL as an agent for social change.
“If they take domestic violence seriously, it will send a message to youth and start a conversation,” Tonkovich said. “Since this has been in the media, we’ve had more survivors come forward and share their stores, or talk with their families.”
Although Williams criticized the NFL’s response to the debacle, she doubts there would be serious public relations consequences for the Saints if they were to sign Rice.
She said that although there could initially be some backlash, most Saints fans would eventually accept him, given his talent on the field.
“Football is important to Louisiana, and we love to win,” Williams said. “It’s a drug.”
Williams pointed out that sports fans also love a comeback.
“This whole state is about redemption, and it would be a perfect place for [Rice] and his family to land.”
However, some of the Saints’ fan base would almost certainly be unhappy with the decision.
“It’s too soon for me,” said Jennie Armstrong, a lifelong Saints fan. “I’m not ready to give him a chance, and I don’t want him anywhere near my team.”
Biggs also said she would be angry if the Saints signed Rice. Although she can see the value of giving someone who is truly remorseful a second chance, Biggs does not think Rice is sorry for the incident in the elevator.
“Unfortunately, I can’t be that optimistic where Rice is concerned, especially after seeing the video and reading the transcripts from his interviews,” Biggs said. “Bringing on Rice would communicate a message that the Saints, as a team, value players over women who are abused.”
Tonkovich said the Saints could probably expect a mixed reaction from fans if they were to sign Rice.
“We live in a big football culture. But I think there would be a lot of outrage, especially in the domestic violence advocacy world,” Tonkovich said. “Especially if he was signed without going through any kind of batterer intervention program … Especially when New Orleans and Louisiana already have high rates of domestic violence.”
Williams suggested that Rice could actually be a powerful tool in the fight to end domestic violence, if he partnered with local advocacy groups. She said Rice could become like Michael Vick, who plays quarterback for the New York Jets and was arrested in 2007 for operating a dog fighting ring. Vick has since become an advocate for animal rights.
Tonkovich also said that it could be beneficial for domestic violence advocacy if the Saints signed Rice. If he were to take serious steps toward rehabilitation, he could serve as an example to other domestic abuse perpetrators that they can change.
“We also don’t want to see abusers as, ‘this is how they’re always going to be’,” Tonkovich said. “There needs to be some pathway to rehabilitation. Because abusers will always be a part of our society, whether they are football players or not.”
Williams emphasized, however, that Louisianans would quickly turn on Rice if he were to abuse his wife – or anyone else –again.
Williams pointed to other athletes who have only been in hot water once, such as Tennessee Titans quarterback and former LSU player Zach Mettenberger, who plead guilty to two sexual battery charges in 2010 (the charges stemmed from the same incident). Mettenberger has never been accused of any kind of sexual assault since then. Because he is not a repeat offender, Williams said, most people have either forgotten about the charges or do not hold them against him.
Rice cannot make the same mistake twice, Williams stressed. “There is a limit to how much people believe in your redemption.
“You only get one mulligan.”