Image and Substance

We are captivated by images, so much so that we allow images to govern our behavior instead of substance.

The National Football League and the National Basketball Association provide the latest and perhaps most egregious examples. One of the reasons they are current whipping boys is they are extremely concerned with protecting their image. Given the fact that the teams in these businesses are made up of men who have grown up largely unconcerned with how they appear to others, this presents an ongoing problem. Drugs, aberrant social behavior, alcohol use, sexual behavior, domestic abuse and remarks that offend racial minorities regularly rear their heads.

The recent shoddy and criminal behavior by (former) Baltimore running back Ray Rice provides, among other things, an excellent example of concern with image up against substance. As almost everyone in America now knows, there are two videotapes that show Rice abusing his then-fiancé in an elevator. The first tape, made public some days ago, shows Rice dragging an unconscious woman out of the elevator and adjusting her body in various ways. Eventually a passerby helps her sit up.

The image – of Rice dragging the limp female body—earned the Raven running back a suspension from the game for two weeks. The NFL hierarchy and Roger Goodell (“the most powerful man in sports”) took some heat for that. “A slap on the wrist” was widely spoken, but the incident was regarded by most of the public as over and Rice made himself ready to play again. (The American public is famous for being outraged and then moving on.)

But then a second video surfaced, one that may or may not have been available all along. This was from inside the elevator and showed the muscular young man throwing a punch that knocked this woman out. It was quick and it was ugly. His fiancé went down in a heap, hitting her head on a railing on the way.

This second image, in the words of Raven’s coach John Harbaugh, “changed everything.” Here is the image-substance split. Dragging an unconscious woman out of an elevator in which they were the only two occupants is worth a two-game suspension. Having the punch inside the elevator shown to the American public leads to Rice’s dismissal, probably ending his career.

The image, revealed to the public, turned the screw. The substance – domestic abuse, violence against women, assault and battery—was disregarded.

Here are my questions: what did the NFL think went on in the elevator? What did they do to find out? How committed is the league to transparency?

Was there some agreement that the woman just passed out? Was Rice innocent of any wrong doing? Did the league pursue the truth or just do enough to protect the image of the Ravens and the league?

Something clearly wrong went on inside that little box and the people who should have been most concerned with discovery apparently turned a blind eye to substance. This is the first any of us have seen of this videotape – that’s the official line. (In fact, Harbaugh publicly supported Ray Rice, dragging his fiancé out of an elevator, until the second set of images surfaced.)

It appears that the NFL, like so many other corporations is more devoted to protecting its brand, its image, than it is to discovering and revealing the truth. Apparently the recent examples of General Motors, Penn State and many other athletes are not enough to change the drive to preserve the image at all costs. It means millions of dollars.

There is such an emphasis on individual players acting to be role models, that the league itself fails to see that it can provide one of strongest messages of all: when the going gets tough, the tough get open. Openness, truth telling and self-responsibility are all virtues that we need to learn and embrace over and over again.

You think this is not important?

One third of all women in this country suffer some kind of physical and/or sexual abuse during their lifetime. This is a national disgrace. If 55 million people were suffering from some disease, we would all be shocked, scared and outraged. It would be –and is—an epidemic.

To the extent that ANY institution takes part in, allows, supports or ignores that epidemic, it needs to be held accountable. Now.


John Thomas Wood