We will never know what would have happened if the Ravens decided to release Ray Rice when news of his domestic violence incident first broke. What began as an act of compassion towards a player who had been a model citizen in the community turned into a stain on the Ravens organization when the disturbing elevator video was released for public consumption. Owner Steve Bisciotti was shaken as the national media directed their venom towards him for initially giving Rice a second chance. Bisciotti decided to save face, released Rice, instituted a zero tolerance policy and declared the Ravens would focus on employing players who set a positive example for society.
As the man at the top of the organization structure with the largest financial stake in the team, it was certainly Bisciotti’s prerogative to chart the Ravens course in this area. Since the Rice fiasco, the Ravens have avoided most free agents who would bring unwanted attention to the team, and passed on talented but risky players in the draft to build a team of predominately high character over achievers.
The Ravens have taken a few chances on players with minor blemishes on their record. After all, it would put the team at serious disadvantage if they refused to consider any players who have made mistakes when the majority of employees in this field come from underprivileged backgrounds and are violent by nature. Still, at the recent State of the Ravens press conference Bisciotti reaffirmed the teams commitment to rejecting players with a history of domestic violence.
This emphasis will have a real impact on the Ravens roster construction this offseason. Several highly regarded draft prospects and free agents have checkered pasts. At least six top rated prospects have been accused of serious transgressions.
Dalvin Cook was accused of punching a woman outside a bar in Tallahassee, he was acquitted of the charges after an extremely short jury deliberation. Joe Mixon, another explosive running back, was caught on tape breaking a woman’s jaw with a punch during his freshman season.
Another Sooner, receiver Dede Westbrook, was twice accused of domestic violence but never convicted. LSU defensive lineman Davon Godchaux was also accused of domestic violence before the charges were dropped.
A pair of Alabama prospects also bring character concerns, from drugs and weapons rather than domestic abuse. Pass rusher Tim Williams was arrested in September on gun and marajuana charges. Offensive tackle Cam Robinson was also arrested for carrying a stolen gun but the charges were curiously dropped by the judge.
Several potential veteran targets also have character issues. Although potential cap casualty Brandon Marshall fits the Ravens receiver needs perfectly and has seemingly grown past his immaturity as a young professional, he has a long rap sheet that includes several domestic violence incidents. Wideout Michael Floyd was arrested for drunk driving in December. Pass rushers Junior Gallette and Frostee Rucker have both been charged with various forms of assault or battery.
This is just a sampling of character concerns the Ravens brass will have to sift through this offseason. There are surely more talented football players whose questionable actions have yet to receive the full media spotlight. It will be challenging for the Ravens front office to make judgement calls on which risky players are worthy of investment and which are not.
Making matters even more difficult is the recently monikered “fact free” society. Is the perception of enabling a ‘bad apple’ more important than the reality of his sins? Are mere accusations enough to remove a player from consideration or is a conviction necessary? Can man on man violence, drugs or weapons problems be overlooked while a hard line is in place prohibiting violence against women? Where will the Ravens draw the line?
As general manager Ozzie Newsome explained at the press conference, the Ravens will judge each player on a case by case basis. The team cannot afford to eliminate all players who have ever made a bad decision. That would shrink the player pool down too much for a team that already has the salary cap stacked against them. But they won’t willingly bring toxic players into the locker room either.
The NFL is a business and therefore a balancing act. Some of the very best players in franchise history made highly publicized mistakes off the field - Ray Lewis, Jamal Lewis, Terrell Suggs and Chris McAlister just to name a few. To remain popular with their fanbase, the Ravens must find a way to upgrade their roster in order to win more games, while also adhering to society’s desire for public figures to be role models.
In the end, it will come down to Bisciotti’s pain threshold. What is his tolerance for media blowback? We will find out if the Ravens recent regression has softened his stance. It should be an interesting offseason.