Talking to My Kids About Our Hometown Hero Ray Rice

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ESSENCE.com Executive Editor Abby West shares how her family dealt with the fall of their hometown hero Ray Rice.

I am not what one would call a football fan. I watch it so infrequently that I often have to be reminded of the rules whenever I do watch. But for the last 10 years or so, Ray Rice has somehow been a bit of a hero in my house. You see, I live in New Rochelle, New York, Rice’s hometown. The Westchester city Rice grew up in and the one he made a point of giving back to even after he left it for Rutgers and then the NFL. He has touched the city and schools with events he has sponsored and his support for school sports, especially our championship football team, on which he first made his name in the early 2000s, and our championship cheerleading teams. And he touched my family’s life like he did many others in New Rochelle. He was one of my son’s camp counselors very early on, he made an appearance at my daughter’s graduation from the same elementary school he went to, we've all been to more than one Ray Rice Day event at the high school, and pretty much the entire city exalted in the Baltimore Ravens' Super Bowl win last year. Being a New Rochelle resident meant you got to take pride in this young man’s accomplishments and revel in the feel-good hometown-boy-makes-good story.

But from the moment last February when news hit that Rice had been arrested for an altercation with his girlfriend that sweet tale soured. I hoped against hope that there was some misunderstanding, somehow the news was getting it wrong—that was at least until I saw the piece of video that was available even then. The one where he dragged her limp body out of the elevator and left her splayed on the floor. From that moment I knew I had to talk to my son, who was now attending the same high school for which Rice had played and achieved his state records. I had to find out what he'd heard and temper it with some hard truths. Sure enough the talk among the students was a version of the story in which the couple was drunk and this would all blow over. Granted, my kid had not seen the video but clearly I needed to make sure he understood the seriousness of the situation. We'd talk about it some more when the two-game suspension came down and I expressed my disappointment. I had to explain why the NFL giving a lesser punishment to a player for a crime against a woman than they gave to a player for crimes against animals was simply not okay.

Related: It Isn’t Just About Janay Rice

And then the video of the actual punch came out this week. It was one of those days I was both drawn to social media and repulsed by it. I couldn’t stop following the online reactions to the video of Ray Rice knocking out his then-girlfriend with one quick punch. As the vast majority of commenters expressed horror at the brutality and renewed righteous indignation at the punishment, another faction felt the need to cast aspersions on his wife Janay (“She's stupid for staying”) or belittle those of us who thought this merited a conversation (“She forgave him, so move on already”). My heart broke for this woman whose life and worst day was on display and was then compounded by judgment. But the need for a public discourse around this and domestic violence was clear.

The backlash quickly led to the Ravens cutting Rice and the NFL suspending him. And yet again I rushed home thinking about the conversation I needed to have with both my son and daughter, who was now also at the high school. Both had heard rumblings about the story throughout the school day but no facts. My girl, God bless her, was angry when she got the facts and vehement in her reaction that a strong punishment was necessary. And from my boy, the one I know I’m raising to be a feminist, someone who believes in the rights of everyone, someone who has a strong sense of his self-worth and that of others, I heard the equivocations that were being spread through school. They’re the same ones that I read online and heard on some radio stations both with this instance and back with Rihanna and Chris Brown. That some couples do get physical when things get heated and that she might have gotten into it with him, too. He was very clear that he would never hit a woman, just that it seemed like some couples just did that. I changed the pace up in our living room so fast you might as well have heard the record scratch. I turned and said in no uncertain terms that there is never an occasion where something a woman said or did merited hitting her. Yes, a woman shouldn’t attack a man either. But retaliating is still never an answer and should never be excused. And if he ever witnessed it, he would be witnessing a crime and should deal with it accordingly.

Related: Janay Rice Stands By Her Husband Ray Rice

I know that rationalization of “it takes two to tango” is a societal problem, but locally I feel it’s also a last grasp at preserving our mythology. Of keeping that larger-than-life figure somewhat absolved. I’m hearing from parents of boys on the football team that once took pride in their association with Rice about how disheartened those boys are now. As one mom told me, with our kids, it’s not so much that they don’t know right from wrong, even though they may need some help learning the nuances.  It’s the loss of a figure they’d connected with and looked up to, and that we as parents had once felt good about letting them do so. For New Ro Nation, much like Ravens Nation, there’s just such an added sense of disappointment. But as always there’s a chance for a life lesson. Not just to show that actions should have consequences, no matter how famous you are. But also for a one-time hero to show how to be a human being walking the path to redemption even through ignominious circumstances.

Abby West (@AbbyWestNYC) is the executive editor of ESSENCE.com.

Related: President Obama Addresses Ray Rice Video

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Filed under: Lifestyle, Parenting