David J. Neal

David J. Neal: NFL fumbled on Ray Rice punishment, then tried to justify it

Maybe the NFL should’ve just shut up and let Ray Rice speak.

The Baltimore running back spoke publicly Thursday for the first time since security camera video and NFL discipline transformed him into the latest domestic violence national talking point. Rice occasionally came off as self-centered.

He also indulged in some self-victimization. Generally, however, he seemed seriously ashamed of the actions toward his wife in February that got him charged with felony aggravated assault.

Rice went into a diversionary program. Meanwhile, the video of Rice dragging his unconscious now-wife off an Atlantic City casino elevator turned into the second-most popular video this summer behind Lucy.

The NFL suspended Rice two games.

Two games. Last year’s NFL sacks leader, Indianapolis’ Robert Mathis, got four games for a first-time PED violation.

Former University of Miami safety Brandon Meriweather got two games for repeated helmet-to-helmet collisions.

So, for a head shot against his wife, Rice got what somebody will get this season for a couple of head shots against another padded, large muscular man expecting violence.

(And, yes, we can say Rice clocked her in the head or pushed her so hard she hit her head on something in the elevator. Rice got on the elevator with a conscious woman. He dragged an unconscious woman off the elevator. He said what happened was “a huge mistake on my behalf.”

What do you think he did? Jacked her on the elbow? Dipped her too hard dancing to the elevator Muzak?)

It doesn’t add up. The NFL knows it. Sheriff commissioner Roger Goodell sent deputy Adolpho Birch, NFL senior vice president of labor policy, on ESPN’s Mike and Mike to explain the NFL’s action.

Summary of Birch’s explanation: They considered all things and made a decision.

Rice didn’t try to defend the suspension. He didn’t try to defend anything other than his wife (“She can do no wrong. She’s an angel.”).

“I don’t have any control over what the punishment was,” Rice said. “I’m being punished on a daily basis.”

That “I’m being punished …” qualifies as one of Rice’s Me Moments.

Maybe he was trying to get across how he’s beating himself up over beating his wife. When you’re speaking publicly without a script about your darkest moment, it shouldn’t come out smoothly.

Rice hit all the clichéd stops — apologizing to his mother, wife, family, wife’s family — but, well, yeah.

Isn’t that what any halfway decent person does when they’ve done something this shameful?

When you’ve stained the family name after good parenting raised you, don’t you feel pain for your parent(s)?

You’ve lived a good life — or one without introspection — if you’ve never thought, “I was taught better than that. But now people look at Mama/Daddy/’Em and wonder ‘How did they raise that boy? What example were they setting?’ ”

(Rice’s mother raised him after a case of mistaken identity on a drive-by killed Rice’s law-abiding father in Rice’s infancy.)

Don’t you think about the daughter who’ll someday Google Mom or Dad’s name just for fun and see Daddy did WHAT? Rice says he did.

As a father with an already-Googling daughter, I just nodded with, “Yup.”

The audience helped the perception of sincerity.

About 30 of Rice’s Baltimore teammates stood behind a row of cameras that, from one overhead Baltimore Sun shot, resembled a row of futuristic automatic weapons.

You can fudge, fib, outright lie to outsiders. Players do it often in the pack media scrums surrounding NFL players (“We believe in Chad Henne!”).

It’s why reporters try to get players solo. Lies top the small list of things harder to sell to one than to many.

But lying to the guys you sweat, laugh, eat, giggle, win, lose, complain, commiserate, celebrate, live with … that’s harder.

Especially when they’re declaring to all their support for you by presence and word.

I’m not sure what they’re supporting, just as I’m not sure why fans at Monday’s open workout reportedly cheered Rice with extra gusto.

Usually those kind of supportive cheers come after you get out of rehab, not out of an elevator while pulling your KO’d wife.

Perceptions of scenes like Thursday come down to what we want to believe.

When Brandon Marshall told assembled media down here he had Borderline Personality Disorder, you could hear skepticism in the silence. Rice’s public house was clean before this.

People generally don’t want to change opinions of people, particularly long-held opinions.

What I do know after Thursday is this: Rice committed an appalling act and tried to swan dive on the knife.

The NFL made a big mistake in dealing with Rice’s act and tried to justify it.