Ray Rice Played a Hero on Television

Stats-crazed fantasy fanatics and secrecy-obsessed teams are holding players to a lower standard – or none at all.

When Joe McConnell announced  Walter Payton‘s games in the late seventies, he didn’t dwell on his statistics. He talked about toughness, footwork, and athleticism. He talked about the way Payton carried himself off the field and how that forthrightness translated to yards after contact. He didn’t know that Payton was abusing painkillers or that he had a rocky home life, but he wasn’t wrong about the Bear’s star. Payton was great.

Here’s what we talk about when we used to talk about when we talked about Ray Rice: 9214 yards from scrimmage, an average of 15.5 attempts per game, and an Approximate Value that hit 18 in 2009. Now we talk about that left hook to his wife’s jaw and what a piece of shit Raymell turned out to be. There’s a disconnect there that we’ll never totally understand because we don’t know enough about Ray Rice, Janay Palmer, or theRavens. But we can look at ourselves and draw some conclusions, including that we, as sports fans, may have been conditioned to consider numbers instead of actually watching players. Advanced stats are great and “Moneyball” was great for sports writ large, but fan willingness to completely decouple stats from character in concert with the increasing insularity of team management has seemingly blinded us to major players’ major flaws.

Ray Rice slipped in fantasy drafts last year because of concerns about injuries, but his weakness wasn’t his knees. Rice’s weakness turned out to be his character. Would we have seen the Ray Rice scandal (scandal makes it sound more complicated than it is) coming if the Harbaughs were, as a species, more forthcoming and we were watching the game instead of our PPR league tallies? Probably not, but maybe.

Ray Rice is a clenched muscle. At 5’8”, he’s small for the league, but he’s got raw power that allows him to break tackles and the sort of agility you don’t associate with guys who can bench 400 pounds. He’s an opportunist on the field. Off the field, he’s always been a mystery. We know that he was close to Ray Lewis (who is not a boy scout), had guns in his home, and named his daughter Rayven – though we might not know what to do with that last piece of information. We know Rutgers fans love him and that he’s been loyal to his college coach.

That’s about it. If Walter Payton ran like a man possessed, Rice ran like a man contractually obligated. And that was perfectly fine with everyone so long as he put up big numbers. Rice was a cipher – reading clippings about him is like reading about a racehorse – and a local hero in New Brunswick and Baltimore, where he was insulated from the people who admired him.

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It’s tempting to draw a parallel between Rice and Lewis because they’re Baltimorean Rays or Rice and O.J. Simpson because they’re both backs who hurt women, but the most illustrative parallel – if you’re looking to dissect this thing from a fan’s perspective – has nothing to do with location or the abuse of women. The precedent for what happened with Ray Rice is what happened with Aaron Hernandez, the Patriot who turned out to be a serial killer. Fans were praising Hernandez for his on-field production at the same time he was committing unspeakable crimes. The public knew nothing about the guy except that he could break a tackle and that was by design: He played forBillBelichek, the least scrutable coach in the league, and an organization that liked to talk in abstract terms about the “Patriot Way.” No one knew the guy, but he was a hero in New England.

Was Walter Payton the hero Chicago wanted him to be? Nope. No one could live up to that amount of adoration. But he tried to be – both on the field and off – both because that’s who he was and because he didn’t really have another choice. Rice, on the other hand, was protected from actual scrutiny by his value, both to his organization and in purely monetary terms. In many ways, the NFL has rebuilt the Hollywood studio system that once protected leading men in order to make absolutely sure players won’t seem like average (or below average) human beings. Rice’s numbers made him a hero and the secretive, number–crunching organization that employed him insisted he was a star.

That organization doesn’t employ him any more and they deserve zero praise for the decision to let him go. They failed him by not forcing him to try and become more than 6,180 rushing yards. He failed by becoming less than nothing, a beater of women.

Photos by Patrick Smith / Getty Images