Of the literal dozens of interviews with NFL players regarding Ray Rice that I have seen in the past 36 hours, all of which expressed condemnation, the best comment was made by his teammate Justin Forsett:
"I'm not going to abandon him now. I'm going to be a friend and help him in his growth and development. But I'm definitely ashamed watching that."
I want to be explicit about two things up front, and please re-read these before you post your angry comments. One, absolutely nobody should feel sorry for Ray Rice. Two, Ray Rice should go to prison. I believe that anyone who commits a crime with this level of violence deserves a prison sentence. Counseling? Therapy? Suspensions? Yes, he should have those things too. But he should spend a not-insignificant amount of time in prison for his crime. He won't, but he should.
I believe violent criminals should go to jail, but I also believe in an outmoded theory of incarceration that tries to rehabilitate offenders. It is one of my core beliefs that with very few exceptions, people who commit crimes can be rehabilitated. Not all of them will choose to do so, obviously, but I believe that every individual has the potential to reflect on his crime and commit to changing the part of himself that caused it to happen. And my purpose in writing this post is to emphasize that this applies even to people who commit the kind of crimes we find the most shocking and heinous.
This is not to say "Leave Ray alone!" or "The poor guy has suffered enough!" because he hasn't. People who do shameful things should not be shocked when they are made to feel ashamed of their actions and to the extent that he is suffering right now he has only himself to blame – not to mention that his suffering pales in comparison to that of his victim. He is not the victim; he is the perpetrator of all the misery resulting from his behavior including his own.
Forsett's comment reminds us all that while sympathy and concern should be directed primarily to the victim, the offender needs support as well. Rice does not need everyone on Earth to abandon him and treat him like a pariah even though he has committed a disgusting crime. He needs people to say, "I'm appalled at what you did, and if you decide that you want to change I will be here to help you." Not to make excuses for you. Not to protect you from the scorn and criticism you earned. To help. I think everyone deserves that, including murderers, rapists, and Ray Rice.
As I wrote years ago regarding Michael Vick, there is a tendency for people to adopt reactionary, right-wing frames when someone commits a particularly heinous crime. Suddenly we stop talking about the myriad problems with the justice and correctional systems in this country and we join the "Lock 'em up and throw away the key" chorus. We start demanding to see people punished in perpetuity, branded for life by their crime. Ray Rice will never escape what he did, nor should he. He will always be that guy who knocked his wife out and dragged her around by the hair. He made that bed for himself. But the appropriate response should not be to cast him out like a leper. If – the big if – he is willing to destroy the part of himself that enabled him to commit that crime and replace it with something better, people who know him should help him through that process. If he emerges from that having learned from his brutal crime (I hate it when people say "mistake" here), then more power to him. That is exactly what we want from people who commit crimes – to rehabilitate, not simply to be punching bags for our scorn and punishment forever.
I believe people can change, even people who do terrible things. To believe otherwise would be to agree with the Palins and the Limbaughs of the world, whose simplistic, idiotic worldview dictates that people are Good or Evil, period. Even though it is unpopular to say anything less than ruthlessly critical of a person who commits this kind of crime I'd sooner eat my hat than throw it into the ring with people who espouse such backward beliefs.