On Feb. 15, Ray Rice was arrested after punching his wife in the face at an Atlantic City casino, knocking her unconscious. Two days later, the Baltimore Ravens held a press conference in which general manager Ozzie Newsome said that Rice “was still a big part of what we plan to do in 2014.” But the Ravens hadn’t brought in the media to talk about Ray Rice. Rather, the team was excited to announce that linebacker Terrell Suggs had signed a four-year contract extension with $16 million of guaranteed money. “It’s just a really great day for me, and I’m truly flattered,” Suggs said. “I’m honored that I get to be a Raven for life.”
Rice and Suggs were teammates on the Ravens for six years. They’ve both gone to the Pro Bowl multiple times and won the Super Bowl. But that’s not all they have in common. Suggs, like Rice, is an alleged domestic abuser. Candace Williams, the mother of Suggs’s children, has filed for two protective orders against him in the last five years, both detailing a series of alleged violent acts. Shortly after one of those alleged incidents, Suggs and Williams got married, just as Rice and his fiancée Janay Palmer did not long after Rice punched his future wife in an elevator. In December 2012, the same week Williams got the second of those protective orders removed, Suggs wrote on his Facebook page, “Last night I married my best friend and the love of my life.” He added, “I'm a lucky, lucky man. Thank you God for all of your blessings and for showing me such amazing favor.”
For all those similarities, there’s one big difference between Rice and Suggs: The running back’s punch was caught on tape. The linebacker’s alleged actions were not. That explains why Rice was cut by the Ravens, while Suggs is being celebrated this week for wearing a funny T-shirt mocking Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. In the vast majority of domestic violence cases, there’s not a video. Ray Rice is an outlier. Terrell Suggs is not, and that’s precisely why his case is worth puzzling over.
The first public accusations of domestic abuse against Suggs came in December 2009. According to the Baltimore Sun, Williams said that she and Suggs started arguing over tickets to an upcoming Ravens-Steelers game. The Sun story details, via court records, Williams’ account of how the argument escalated:
Suggs said [Williams] had hurt his arm and began yelling obscenities at her, and Williams said she spat on his chest. She wrote that she heard one of Suggs' friends, who was present in the home, say, “Oh no, Sizz [Suggs’s nickname], come on, don't do that.” When she turned around, according to her complaint, he knocked her to the ground and sat on top of her, grabbing her neck and holding an open bottle of bleach over her.
Williams wrote that Suggs used an obscenity and said he was going to “drown [her] with this bleach.”
She put her hands over the cap, but the cleaner spilled onto her and their son, she wrote. He then told her to get out of the house, dressed and left for the game, she wrote.
In an area in which petitioners are asked to describe “past injuries,” Williams lists “busted lips, broken nose, black eyes, bruises,” though she did not give dates or say how such injuries occurred.
According to court records, “Baltimore City District Court Judge Ronald Alan Karasic wrote that a laceration was visible on Williams’ chest.” Williams also alleged that “[t]hroughout our relationship since early 2007, [Suggs] has punched me in the face and stomach and threatened to take the children from me if I left him. He stole my ID so I could not leave.” Suggs explained to the Sun “that the incident was a family matter and he would not comment.” The Ravens player “also denied that he was in a relationship with Williams,” a denial that strains credulity and seems to contradict Suggs’ claim that this was a “family matter.”
Though a judge granted a protective order, Suggs did not admit wrongdoing and was not charged with a crime. A social worker also said that allegations that Suggs had abused the couple’s son could not be substantiated. A short time later, Williams withdrew a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the Ravens star and asked for the protective order to be rescinded, as the couple was attempting to reconcile.
Three years later, Williams asked for yet another protective order. This time, Suggs had filed a complaint of his own asking for custody of the couple’s two children. According to the Sun, Suggs alleged that Williams “is verbally abusive to the children, smokes marijuana while they're in the home, and utilizes corporal punishment against them.” A day later, Williams alleged that Suggs “punched her in the neck and drove a car containing their two children at a ‘high rate of speed’ while she was being dragged alongside.” Williams’ request for a protective order was granted, and as a consequence Suggs was ordered to give up his firearms. The Sun reported that under Maryland law, “a judge is authorized to order someone to surrender firearms if they find there are reasonable grounds to believe the person seeking a protective order has been abused. It is not a finding of guilt.”
Again, Williams soon asked for the protective order to be removed. Again, no charges were filed. In the midst of all this, Suggs released the following statement: “My fiancée and I have two beautiful children together whom we both love and care for tremendously. The personal issues that the two of us have faced recently have been addressed in a responsible and adult manner and have been resolved. I am certain that we will get through this matter and move forward as a happy family.” A few days later, Suggs and Williams were married.
In both 2009 and 2012, the Ravens and the NFL preached patience. After the first incident became public, Ravens vice president Kevin Byrne told the Sun that Suggs “will have his chance to tell his side of the story,” and NFL spokesman Greg Aiello explained to the newspaper that the league would “take a look at it as we would any such matter to try to understand the facts.” When news broke about the 2012 complaint, the Ravens’ Byrne told USA Today, simply, “We are aware of the situation.”
The Ravens’ awareness and the NFL’s vow to “take a look at it” did not lead to any concrete actions. I was unable to find any follow-up reports from either the team or the league—what they found after “taking a look at it.” There have been no public reports that Suggs was fined, suspended, or otherwise punished by the Ravens or the NFL for either of these alleged domestic incidents. I reached out to both the Ravens and the NFL to ask whether either entity has conducted an investigation of Suggs, or whether he’s ever been subject to any discipline. I have not heard back from either the team or the league, but I’ll update this piece if I do get a response.
It’s not just the NFL that didn’t take the allegations of abuse seriously. Suggs’ case shows that without video evidence of an alleged crime, the press will move on, too. While his domestic disputes were covered amply in 2009 and 2012, the football media quickly pivoted to focus on Suggs’ goofy claim that he attended “Ball So Hard University.” Rice is a pariah; Suggs reads mean tweets on Jimmy Kimmel.
As Christine Brennan, Andrew Sharp, and Robert Silverman have pointed out, Suggs is far from a unique figure in the NFL. The Panthers’ Greg Hardy was found guilty this summer of assaulting his ex-girlfriend Nicole Holder. Here’s the Charlotte Observer’s recap of the case:
Hardy, Holder said, flung her from the bed, threw her into a bathtub, then tossed her on a futon covered with rifles. Holder said Hardy ripped a necklace he had given her off her neck, threw it into a toilet and slammed the lid on her arm when she tried to fish it out.
The 6-foot-4, 265-pound Hardy dragged her by the hair room to room, she said, before putting his hands around her throat.
“He looked me in my eyes and he told me he was going to kill me,” said Holder, 24, who said she used to live with Hardy.
Hardy continues to play for the Panthers while his case is under appeal, which likely won’t be heard until 2015. In the meantime, he has not been suspended by the team or the NFL, with a league spokesman telling ESPN that Hardy’s case has “not been resolved by the court.”
Then there’s the case of the San Francisco 49ers’ Ray McDonald, who was recently arrested after his pregnant fiancée “showed police minor bruises on her neck and arms,” according to the Sacramento Bee. McDonald says he’s innocent, and like Hardy has continued to play. “Each case is its own separate case. Ray McDonald is not Ray Rice,” 49ers CEO Jed York said in an interview on KNBR 680 AM this Tuesday. “As a society, we have a sense of saying, ‘You didn't do it with Ray Rice right away, so you need to overdo it with Ray McDonald, or whoever else it is.’ I don't believe that's the country we live in. I don't think that's a fair way to approach it.”
York is right—it’s not fair to immediately cut every player who’s accused of domestic violence. But it’s also not acceptable for a team to say it’s going to “take a look at it” and then do nothing. No criminal charges were ever filed against Terrell Suggs, but a judge did find a laceration on Candace Williams’ chest. That laceration is a real thing. It existed. The Ravens shouldn’t be able to pretend it didn’t.
The best analogy here is to the awful scourge of sexual assault on college campuses. In addition to going to local police, a student can have her complaint heard through a campus adjudication procedure, one that uses “the preponderance of evidence” as a standard of proof rather than a “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard. (As Emily Bazelon has explained, preponderance of the evidence means “reviewers must find only that it’s more likely than not that the sexual assault or harassment occurred.”) There are problems with these campus systems—the New York Times story on Hobart and William Smith Colleges offers a harrowing account of all that can go wrong—but at least they acknowledge the existence of something akin to institutional responsibility.
At least before TMZ released the Rice video, such a concept did not exist in the NFL. Teams have long operated on the assumption that they could say they’re “aware of the situation,” and then just pretend like nothing happened as soon as the news blew over. At some point, individual teams may decide that it makes sense for them to move to a preponderance-of-evidence standard—to decide that it’s in their best interest to cut a player if it’s more likely than not that he’s a domestic abuser. I don't know if we’ve reached that point yet, but the Rice video has gotten us closer to that day. Seeing a sports star clock his fiancée in the face has changed something—for fans, for the media, and ultimately, I think, for the teams. If it doesn't, then the NFL’s problem with domestic violence runs even deeper than we thought.