It is a natural time of year to talk about legacies and role models, as Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Football League (NFL) host their annual Hall of Fame festivities on back to back weekends. The recently concluded MLB induction ceremonies honored three iconic players – Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Frank Thomas – who were as universally lauded for the off-field character as their on-field performance. A refreshing rarity in the post-steroid era. Similarly, the soon-to-be-inducted star-studded football class of 2014 features all-time good guys such as Michael Strahan and Derrick Brooks, providing a much-needed respite from the breathless, hyperbolic, controversy-generating coverage of everything else related to the sport.


Quality character guys are often the exception, rather than the rule, and this is compounded by the fact that we never truly know who belongs on either side of the good guy/bad guy divide. While we have come to accept this as a somewhat lamentable reality of modern day sports fandom, there are still opportunities for us to take a moral stand or, at the very least, advance the morality discussion. Unfortunately, the two most powerful entities in sports, the NFL and ESPN, missed that opportunity in the aftermath of the Ray Rice domestic violence incident.


The NFL’s laughable two-game suspension imposed on Rice, who was caught on tape striking his then-fiancé (now-wife) and knocking her unconscious at an Atlantic City casino, was deservedly panned by mainstream and sports media outlets alike. There was legitimate outrage and palpable disgust, as well as a sense of bewilderment at the relatively lenient disciplinary measures taken by the NFL. All of this was a good thing.


However, something odd emerged in the days following the decree, as influential personalities at both ESPN and NFL dug in their heels, intent on telling the “other” side of the story. This does not make them bad people or irresponsible journalists, but it does demonstrate a shocking level of tone-deafness from two organizations that are PR-obsessed. The NFL continues to publicly defend its ruling in awkward, legally-contorted language. It reminds me of NCAA President Mark Emmert recently conducting a PR blitz to defend his organization’s archaic practices. Sometimes you just need to know when to stop talking.


Of course, ESPN has built an empire on idle chatter and mock debate, and the Ray Rice issue was fodder for all of the network’s talk shows. In a contrived effort to present an alternate point of view, Stephen A. Smith, one of ESPN’s all-time top talkers, went as far to suggest that Rice’s fiancé should bear some responsibility for provoking the attack on Rice. Again, sometimes you just need to know when to stop talking. Like the NFL, Smith subsequently took extra lengths to defend his statements, as he initiated a Twitter rant blaming others for incorrectly interpreting his position.


One of Smith’s colleagues, Michelle Beadle (never one to back down from a Twitter fight), was sufficiently offended by Smith’s comments that she fired back with one of the most brilliant and significant Twitter retorts of all-time. Each time Smith tried to clarify his position, Beadle ratcheted up the scathing sarcasm and genuine incredulity. Finally, a voice of reason had emerged. Not from ESPN management, who was oddly silent, but from an employee who had the audacity to A) be female and B) have an actual human reaction. Ultimately, Smith issued a formal, on-camera apology. Score one for basic decency.


We may be willing to accept less from our athletes, but let’s hold ourselves to a higher standard of accountability. The NFL and ESPN know better. They just assumed we’d let this one slide. Thankfully, it turns out that most of us have a pretty good sense of right and wrong and, we’d be pretty comfortable if that were our legacy.


What is your reaction to the Ray Rice suspension and subsequent social media discussion? Feel free to comment below or reach out to me @endbadly.