What we must learn from the Ray Rice case

sport1When justice isn’t served one would assume that attention would turn to the justice system. It’s in the name. Yet increasingly, it seems that we look to businesses to take responsibility for social justice in their field. We call it corporate social responsibility and it is a trend that has me worried.

The NFL has been particularly notorious in the media this off-season, due to the sheer number of criminal charges being brought against their players for their actions off the field. The most well-known case is that of Ray Rice, a star player of the Baltimore Ravens. He was brought up on charges of domestic abuse after knocking his then-fiancée, Janay Palmer, unconscious and dragging her by the hair from the lift of a casino. Rice avoided a criminal record through his agreement to take part in a rehabilitation program as well as through the support of Palmer, whom he had married in the meantime. On September 8th, a video of the incident was released, sparking public outcry.

Ignoring the fact that it took video footage of this incident for it to become an issue of public debate for many (the written court report describing Rice dragging Palmer unconscious by her hair wasn’t quite enough to go viral), the reaction of the media amazed me. The full weight of public debate and investigative reporting went into two things: whether the Ravens should drop Ray Rice, and whether Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner, had buried the video.

I would put two others instead. Why do the Ravens have a choice to make about the future of Ray Rice; why is the man not in prison? And, more importantly than the NFL Commissioner, did the Atlantic County prosecution have access to this video and, if so, did it impact on the outcome of this case?

The mystery as to why the New Jersey prosecutors faced little public scrutiny was short lived. It turns out there’s much less drama to this side of the story. “Mr. Rice received the same treatment by the criminal justice system in Atlantic County that any first-time offender has, in similar circumstances,” said a spokersperson for the Atlantic County prosecutor who was responsible for Rice’s case. Without the cooperation of the victim, it is almost impossible to impose a harsher sentence on a first-time offender, despite the vicious nature of the assault.

We seem to have become so weary of the impenetrable bureaucracy of our public institutions that we direct our righteous anger at illegitimate actors. 

While I have my own view, I don’t claim to know what the appropriate reform is for the law on domestic abuse. In fact it is not the outcome of such a debate that matters but that this debate happens at all. We seem to have become so weary of the impenetrable bureaucracy of our public institutions that we direct our righteous anger at illegitimate actors. We should not have been challenging the NFL to ban Ray Rice from playing in the pink jerseys in support of breast cancer research; we should have been outraged that this was even possible considering that Rice should be behind bars for the foreseeable future.

It’s concerning that we look for private companies to fulfill functions previously reserved for the justice system. We like corporate social responsibility because it gives us, as a public, a more powerful and direct access to recourse. We envisage corporate giants like Nestlé, Shell, and most recently the NFL at our beck and call in our demands for social reform.

Ultimately our power over businesses to create social change comes from the threat we pose to their profit margin. This poses several problems. First, this means that ultimately their actions have a strict budget, because as soon as the cost of justice exceeds the income from the affected group of customers, resources for change will quickly dry up.  Secondly, it means that those on lower incomes, those who don’t have access to these businesses because they are too poor to be their customers, will never be able to shape the agenda for this kind of social change.

Thirdly, this sort of social justice is incredibly inconsistent. Despite the media attention that has been devoted to the NFL, there have been marked differences in the league’s reaction to similar legal situations. Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings and Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers both agreed to suspend their involvement on the field while their legal cases, both involving domestic abuse, proceed. Simultaneously, Vance McDonald of the San Francisco 49ers continues to play while he awaits the development of his case on charges of assaulting his pregnant wife. This sort of inconsistency can be explained by the external scrutiny the teams face. Minnesota faced threats of withdrawal of sponsorship if the team’s star running back, Peterson, continued to play. The defensive role of McDonald means far less fans wearing his number thus sponsors are far less concerned with his continuing on-field involvement.

Finally, even if these corporations would spend every excess dime towards social reform, the motivation for these decisions would be monetary not moral. Businesses act socially responsibly because their customers expect them to, not because it’s the right thing to do. The only proof we need of this is the amount of advertising companies devote to informing us of their plethora of charitable partners. People may be altruistic but companies never will be. Some people find this fact unconscionable. I find it reassuring. The actions of business are predictable because they behave in a way that is in their own interest.

When we start to demand that businesses adopt our moral codes, they will do so for all intents and purposes. Yet we can never rely on their maintaining this moral code because we are only waiting for the moment that it becomes untenable with their profit-maximising nature. I am happy to use my custom to demand change in the behavior of businesses in all areas save ethical matters. Where these are concerned we have a purpose-built set of public institutions, to fulfill the provision of public goods and public interests that are not the responsibility of any one person or company.

And even if the NFL were to become a charity in the morning, why would we look to them as the barometer of social justice? Roger Goodell is the lawmaker of the NFL, a man who is elected by the owners of the 32 teams. This elite group hardly seems like the foundation for a system of true social justice. The shareholders in a justice system are its citizens and its profit is measured by its ability to uphold the moral standards set out by those citizens. It may not be perfect, we may need to engage and reform, but I would rather spend my days seeking incremental improvements in a public justice system than ever ask 32 millionaires to set the agenda for social reform.