NFL historically bungles domestic violence cases

Tampa Bay signed Michael Pittman in 2002 despite a history of domestic violence, including an endangerment plea with Bucs. Times file (2005)
Tampa Bay signed Michael Pittman in 2002 despite a history of domestic violence, including an endangerment plea with Bucs.Times file (2005)
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Once, another running back stood accused of abuse so serious it would make you cringe.

Once, another wife told chilling tales of mistreatment, but in the end sided with her husband over the concept of legal justice.

Once, another team … did nothing.

And Michael Pittman ran on.

If there is any solace to be had in the aftermath of the Ray Rice release, perhaps this is it. Finally, justice occurred. Finally, there was an attempt by somebody to get it right.

Yes, you can shout that the Ravens released Rice far too late, and you would be right. If the NFL didn't look at this video sooner before repunishing Rice, as it now suggests despite all the reports that say it was viewed long ago, then why in heck didn't it? Yes, you can scream that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell failed so badly that it should forever stain his legacy, if it should not shorten his tenure. Yes, you can suggest the Ravens acted more out of a public relations concern than they did out of compassion for the victim.

On the other hand, a team eventually got it right. A league eventually paid attention to the awful crime of domestic abuse. The system eventually threw someone out.

Frankly, isn't it about time?

In the matter of domestic abuse, the truth is that it has been about time for a long time.

There is nothing new about a man attempting to exert his power over a woman, only society's willingness to look the other way. Leagues are big on banning steroid use and recreational drug use, but when it comes to spousal abuse, they tend to make a lot of noise and look the other way.

Go back 11 years, for instance. Pittman was the starting tailback for the Bucs in those days, a large muscular load who could run crazy when the mood struck him. On the field. And off of it.

On May 31, 2003, Pittman was enraged at his wife, Melissa. As she drove away, with their 2-year-old son and his babysitter, Pittman drove his Hummer into her Mercedes-Benz. Melissa did not press charges, but she did tell investigators she had "30 to 40'' unreported incidents of abuse.

No, the Bucs did not release Pittman, who had been charged with abuse three times.

No, the league did not immediately suspend him.

No, his teammates did not ostracize him.

Pittman played on. Oh, a year later, the NFL got around to suspending him for three whole games. Except for that, the fallout was small. There was some criticism, but not much. The Bucs cowered behind the league rules. Pittman led the Bucs in rushing the year before the incident, including a game-high 124 yards on 29 carries in the team's only Super Bowl win, and the year of it, and the year after it. Except for the fact that there were women in the audience who knew what had happened, nothing much changed.

So, yeah, at least this is better than that.

Hey, people will fool you. That's part of the problem here. Rice is a marvelous interview, and he comes across as a good guy. Maybe that's why Goodell's original punishment was only two games; maybe that's why Goodell didn't seek out the video. Hey, teammates swore by Pittman, too.

But the truth is that you cannot tell the rage inside a man. You cannot see what size bully he can become.

It matters, you know. It all matters. There are those who argue it should not, that it is about how a man plays football and only about how a man plays football. That's bunk. The gifts that it takes to play the game well are too arbitrary to embrace if a team doesn't stand for something greater.

That's why a team celebrates it when it happens upon a Lee Roy Selmon, a Derrick Brooks, a Warrick Dunn, a Mike Alstott, a John Lynch, a Ronde Barber. That's why character matters. That's why we prefer to think of these players as the best of us.

Even now, however, you can bet that there are football fans who would love for their team to put a claim in on Ray Rice just as soon as he is eligible again, and if Richie Incognito is available to block for him, well, that's okay, too. There are some fans who will pull for anyone who can help their team's final score on Sunday.

It will be interesting to see what happens from now on. Is the NFL really going to lead a movement to abolish spousal abuse? Or is it only going to be serious about the players who are caught on video?

Consider this: On Sunday, the day before the Rice banishment was announced, the San Francisco 49ers started defensive end Ray McDonald, the former Florida Gator who was arrested last month in a domestic dispute (he has not been charged). Of 69 defensive snaps, McDonald played 60.

Is that taking abuse seriously? Really?

Consider this: On Sunday, Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy played against the Bucs, even though he has been found guilty of abuse and threatening to kill his girlfriend. (He is appealing, although his attorney says it will not be decided until after the season.)

Is that taking abuse seriously? Really?

Again, the NFL is not an organization that gets its direction from the courts. It can suspend an employee any time it wishes, as the 2010 suspension of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, accused of assaulting a woman in the restroom of a Milledgeville, Ga., nightclub, demonstrates. It can take a serious situation seriously.

Eleven years ago, I thought the Bucs should have cut Pittman. I thought they should have taken higher ground than deferring to the league office. I thought they should have stood for something.

Now, the league has another opportunity.

Hopefully, it won't blow it again.

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