Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Issues with Ray Rice, Atlanta Hawks not clear cut

The good old days in sports, back when ignorance was bliss and everything seemed simple, might be defined as a time when who the athlete was on the field and how well he performed for us was enough. Plenty. We didn’t look deeper. We didn’t care to know.

We cared how hard our team’s running back hit the hole that his blockers opened for him, never once considering whether he hit his wife when he got home.

We cared if our basketball owner spent enough for a winning team, never once considering whether that owner might be prejudiced just beneath the public persona.

You didn’t need much more than a ticket or a TV to be a sports fan, once.

Now a degree in criminology would help. So would an expertise in sociology.

We are talking about Ray Rice and Bruce Levenson this week for all the wrong reasons, but the conversation is necessary and ultimately good, because domestic violence and race relations are things that should be out in the open and discussed, things too important to be hidden.

The question is whether we can discuss Rice, the indefinitely suspended former Baltimore Ravens running back, and still see a human being and not just the monster in the video.

The question is whether we can discuss Levenson, the resigning Atlanta Hawks majority owner, and still see a man who wrote an unfortunate email and not just a damnable racist.

Can we try?

TMZ obtained and on Monday released the February surveillance video that showed Rice hitting then-fiancée (now wife) Janay Palmer in the head, and showing her crumpling unconscious in a casino elevator in Atlantic City.

The Ravens immediately released Rice and the NFL suspended him indefinitely as the awful images on the video caused a renewed surge of venom against Rice. I feel the need here to make clear and emphasize how terribly wrong I think domestic abuse is — not because I am about to defend Rice (I am not), but because some will choose to wrongly interpret this as that.

The party looking the worst in this is the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell.

Rice doesn’t look worse just because we now see what we have already known for months that he did. He had admitted it. And it was in the police report, which stated that Rice “caused bodily injury to Janay Palmer, specifically by striking her with his hand, rendering her unconscious.”

The issue here — what’s new — is whether the NFL had access to that video (it says it did not) when Goodell originally chose to suspend Rice only two games. The outcry caused a new policy of six games’ suspension for a first offense and a lifetime ban for a second offense.

If Goodell is lying about having seen it, that sounds like a firing offense.

Meantime, the fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants Goodell is suspending Rice indefinitely based on no new information, just a video of what previously was known and acknowledged by Rice and the victim. Even if the NFL’s new rule applied to Rice he would be suspended six games and have the chance to have his career back.

Instead he’s out of work, his suspension is open-ended and there is speculation he might never play again.

That seems harsh.

There I said it. This is where some will think me soft on domestic violence. I am not. But I also think a one-time offender should get a second chance, even one whose crime happens to be splayed out on a damning video.

Donté Stallworth, driving drunk, killed a pedestrian in Miami in 2009, served a year suspension and returned to football. Today he is an intern working with wide receivers for the Ravens, the same team that just released Rice.

Anybody remember Leonard Little? As a Rams rookie in 1998, driving drunk, he killed a woman in St. Louis and served four years’ probation, playing all the while. He had a successful 12-year career, though 2009.

As awful as domestic violence is, it isn’t as bad as taking a life. But the NFL gives second chances for that. Rice should not be treated more harshly than someone guilty of DUI manslaughter just because TMZ got the video.

On to Levenson, the Hawks owner.

But, as with Rice, there are nuances that should allow us to discuss Levenson without it being a one-sided shoutfest.

Levenson in 2012 wrote a now-publicized, instantly infamous email to Hawks executives with the subject line, “Business/Game ops.” He wondered why the team, struggling to fill its arena, couldn’t get age 35 to 55 white males to buy season tickets, and Levenson offered an explanation that “the black crowd scared away the whites.” And that, “Southern whites simply were not comfortable being in an arena where they were the minority.”

Suddenly Levenson is resigning in shame, being called a racist and being likened to deposed Clippers owner Donald Sterling.

But what if his concerns are accurate? What if what he said is true? That to me would be far more damning of white folks in Atlanta than it would be of Levenson for simply trying to deal with the uncomfortable reality he believes is hurting his business.

Levenson complained in his email that white fans might be put off by too many black cheerleaders and too much hip-hop music, writing that the arena should play music “familiar to a 40-year-old white guy.”

Yes, that has clear racial overtones that should make anyone uncomfortable. But if not attracting enough white fans is quantifiably hurting business and the franchise, would it make a little bit of practical sense to seek out a more diverse mix of cheerleaders and music? Or is that racist to even ask the question?

If white fans in Atlanta have a problem with a Hawks game demographic that is too black, that problem is squarely on those white fans and their prejudices. I blame them. I’m not as quick to blame a club owner who, in an internal email, tackled lack of attendance and shared what he thought were some uncomfortable truths.

Odd, perhaps, given the subject matter, but what has us discussing a Hawks owner we’d never heard of a week earlier is not as distinctly simple as black or white.

And neither is forgiveness and the future when it comes to Ray Rice.