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I met Ray Rice in 2012. It was at an event that was held for Ambassadors of Hope — a campaign that two friends and I started to raise money for charitable causes and to provide students in Camden, N.J., where we are all from, much-needed role models to show them that anything is possible. During my brief interaction with Ray, he seemed like a good guy.  He consistently had a smile on his face and was congenial with everyone he interacted with, but most importantly, here he was giving his time to a worthy cause and didn’t ask for anything in return.  Overall, he really impressed me as an example of what more athletes should be like.

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When I first heard of the story about Rice and the allegations of domestic violence, it shocked me for a moment. I couldn’t imagine this person who I experienced with the smiling, almost boyish, face putting his hands on a woman. But recalling my own personal history with domestic violence, I quickly sobered to what I saw on the video. At that time, there wasn’t a tape of the actual physical assault, but there was enough footage for me to see and assess that whatever happened in that elevator was traumatic and reprehensible.

The conversation about the incident and the reprimand that followed were not what I expected.

There were assumptions, that somehow, his fiancée had provoked him. The punishment was less than punitive and struggled to even be categorized as a punishment.  It was clear in that moment that the league valued their game more than they valued the female supporters that are so much a part of making their sport great. The fines and penalties leveled against players for substance abuse and other types of poor conduct were treated much more gravely than assault against a woman. Women, the way I read it, were only there for decoration in the league – to look good on the arms and in the seats and to provide scantily clad eye candy for all viewing men; if a woman watched a game, that’s cool too. And the backlash was swift and deserved.

Then, seemingly as if the applied pressure and public outcry resulted in an about-face, the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had a change of heart and a change of policy. I wondered what caused this shift, only to realize weeks later that what caused it was the horror we all witnessed: of Rice delivering a blow worthy of a boxing ring against a physically diminutive lover.

And still, people claimed “she deserved it.”

It’s a statement that causes me outrage and sadness. Outrage because there is never a justification for hitting someone, especially when it is someone you claim to love, and sadness because I know that for our people – the ones I mainly hear spewing that type of rhetoric – it’s a remnant of slavery, passed down through generations of abuse and thought to be the way to set someone straight.

If we can’t change the perception that it’s okay to use physical force to try to get someone to do what you want or as a penalty for someone not doing what you want, we will never be able to end domestic violence, and realistically, other types of violence as well. What anyone in a relationship deserves is someone who won’t use physical force or violence, who won’t diminish or humiliate them with words, who won’t level emotional violence against them. What anyone in a relationship deserves is to be treated like a partner, not treated like a child, an animal, or a slave. But most importantly, what victims and survivors of violence need are people being there and supporting them through the difficult decisions. We may not understand why any person would stay in an abusive relationship, but we can’t make decisions for anyone else in life. What we can do is be compassionate to them and try to help them find their way. That’s what Janay Rice deserves.

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