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Eisenberg: Good First Step, Long Road Ahead

Posted May 23, 2014

Ray Rice’s greatest hurdle may lie in the court of public opinion.

When Ray Rice was accepted into a pretrial diversionary program by a prosecutor in New Jersey, it meant his legal problems could eventually vanish for the most part. And regardless if the NFL decides to suspend him under its personal conduct policy, any punishment likely will be over fairly quickly.

But while those aspects of his situation are rapidly improving, Rice will not have it so easy in the court of public opinion.

He is facing a much longer haul in his battle to assure fans he is the same, good solider they knew before a grainy security video surfaced in February, leading to his indictment on an aggravated assault charge.

He started the recovery process Friday at the Under Armour Performance Center, speaking to reporters for the first time since the incident. Wearing a gray suit as his wife, Janay Palmer, sat beside him, Rice was nervous, emotional at times, and deeply apologetic, at one point saying, “I failed miserably.” Without taking questions, he sounded like someone who knew he had made a terrible mistake.

“Hopefully one day I will gain back everyone’s trust,” he said. “I’m still the same person.”

His wife also spoke, saying she regretted her role in the incident. "I love Ray, and I know he will continue to prove himself to you and the community,” she said.

It was a safe start to Rice’s attempt to reclaim his positive image, but there’s no doubt a tough road lies ahead.

Rice burnished a golden image in the community with his years of earnest hard work, his countless hours spent in schools, camps and hospitals. He was the star who remembered where he came from and genuinely related to those not as fortunate. He also set an upbeat, positive tone in the locker room, leading both by example and with his words.

The Ravens have stood by him through these tough months because, as President Dick Cass said earlier this week, “We have the advantage of knowing Ray.”

But the positive vibe he worked so hard to develop was mitigated in an instant in many minds, undone by whatever happened that night in a casino elevator in Atlantic City. And the dark clouds that scudded into his previously clear-blue sky will not go away easily.

More than a decade ago, Rice’s mentor, Ray Lewis, experienced even more serious legal trouble. He ultimately got on with his life, but it took years for sponsors to return to him, for Lewis to change the narrative. In the end, he was one of the faces of the NFL and a powerful force in the community. It became a great story of redemption, but his road was long and tough, and some detractors have never forgotten what happened.

Rice’s situation is different in many ways. Rice isn’t going to trial, and it appears he’ll plead guilty to nothing. But domestic violence is a terrible problem in society and a white-hot-button issue, as it should be, and however your toe gets dipped in that boiling water, you’re going to get scalded.

When Rice finally does take questions, some won’t be pretty. And as he tries to get on with his life, he’ll always have to deal with one major obstacle – a grainy security video living forever on the Internet as an on-demand refresher course of the troubles he would like to bury.

Some fans are ready to absolve him, while others are struggling to reconcile their support for him. I have heard plenty from both sides. Frankly, there’s enough doubt that I’m not sure things are ever going to be quite the same for Rice.

But problems that seem insurmountable can ease over time. Life goes on. People get second chances. Rice elected to speak Friday because he wanted his fans, teammates and the community to hear his remorse. He also wanted to send a message to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who will decide if he gets suspended, and if so, for how long.

From here, Rice’s next move is to complete the diversionary program while carefully returning to the community work he was so passionate about before. It’s going to require a tough hide. People say things. He can’t just snap his fingers and make his recent past disappear. All he can do is roll up his sleeves and start trying to change any minds he may have lost, one by one.

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