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Ray Rice’s road to redemption begins

Ray Rice faces a difficult and perhaps unprecedented road to redemption as he tries to get back on the field for a National Football League team next season.

Almost a year to the day that the former Baltimore Ravens running back knocked his then-fiancee unconscious in a New Jersey hotel elevator, Rice issued a statement thanking the Baltimore Ravens and their fans, apologizing for his action and saying he wants to make a positive difference by raising awareness for domestic violence.

Rice’s path back to an NFL roster is far more challenging than that of Michael Vick, who returned in 2009 after a two-year absence tied to his involvement in an illegal dog-fighting ring, or Richie Incognito, who was signed this week by the Buffalo Bills after he lost his job with the Miami Dolphins for bullying a teammate, said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston.

“Rice’s road to redemption is going to be much more difficult than say Vick’s or Incognito’s,” Lebowitz said. “When you look at the vicious nature of the punch and some of the aftermath, it’s very hard to erase that from the collective consciousness of the nation.”

Rice’s $35 million contract was terminated by the Ravens in September, and he was suspended from the NFL after video was made public of him punching Janay Rice, who is now his wife, following a Valentine’s Day dispute last year.

Rice had an indefinite ban lifted by the NFL in November, but went unsigned over the final month of the regular season.

Mark Dominik, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ general manager from 2009 to 2013, said Rice has paid a price — from the financial impact to the permanent stain on his reputation — and will get the chance to suit up for another NFL team.

Potential Distraction

Any teams interested in signing Rice have to consider how much of a distraction he might be, Dominik said, with the accompanying extensive media attention and potential negative reaction from fans, women’s rights groups and sponsors.

“If you’re going to sign Ray Rice, you have to have a press plan in place in terms of what he’s going to actively do to help you in the community, what is the owner’s response going to be, and why you feel he could be a good addition to your football team,” Dominik, who’s now an ESPN analyst, said by telephone. “You have to plan that all out in advance.”

Rice didn’t mention a return to football in his statement, which was first published by the BaltimoreSun. Rice, who previously accepted full responsibility for his actions, again said there’s no excuse for domestic violence and apologized to Ravens’ fans for the “horrible mistake” he made.

“To all the kids who looked up to me, I’m truly sorry for letting you down, but I hope it’s helped you learn that one bad decision can turn your dream into a nightmare,” Rice said.

Positive Difference

The three-time Pro Bowl selection asked fans for forgiveness and said he hopes to make a positive difference in people’s lives by raising awareness of this issue.

“Teams have to consider what Ray is going to do to help women’s rights as an activist,” Dominik said. “He’s had a long time to think about what he’d like to do to turn something that’s such a negative into helping people in that situation.”

Rice’s case was the most publicized of several domestic abuse incidents involving NFL players and led to protests and criticism of the league, particularly Commissioner Roger Goodell. The NFL has strengthened its personal-conduct policy since.

“It’s not something that’s going to go away easily any time soon,” said Lebowitz, whose Center for the Study of Sport in Society has helped provide domestic violence training to professional sports leagues and at the college level. “Therefore, his road back and his road to redemption is going to be a difficult one, even if his intent is pure of heart.”

New Rochelle

Rice said his comments weren’t meant as a farewell. The Baltimore Sun reported that Rice plans to move back to his home state of New York, where he attended New Rochelle High School before playing college football at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

Which NFL team Rice plays with next won’t matter that much, Dominik said, regardless of the size of the media market.

“The story is going to follow Ray Rice regardless, it just depends on how he ties himself into that community and nationally into a program,” Dominik said. “The team that’s going to sign him is really going to evaluate him off the field, but also on his ability and if he can help the team.”