09/18/2014 10:47 am ET Updated Nov 18, 2014

Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Roger Goodell and Quasimodo: Sanctuary, Sanctuary


A whole lot of good things are going to come out of the NFL/violence mess. What's really going on is way beyond a media scrum about a few violent incidents and corporate misjudgments. We've hit a cultural crossroads, things will be different and there's no going back.

We tolerate or prohibit bad behavior in vastly different ways. For decades violence against women and children has been shrugged off. Look at the reaction to drug-related crimes if you want to see what happens when society says "stop." We now imprison hundreds of thousands for minor and non-violent offenses.

It wasn't so long ago that cops wouldn't arrest when called into a violent family quarrel. Courts were lenient. Even today there are arguments out there that a parent has a right to discipline a child even to the extent of causing real injury. Real political pressure was brought, domestic violence shelters were set up, police tactics changed, and some progress was made. But public attitudes didn't quite go that far. And when domestic violence and the wildly popular NFL converged, the ugly truth emerged. No big deal.

Professional sports have been given a zone of immunity from the normal social, political and economic constraints that apply to the rest of us. We're poor: We build stadiums with taxpayer money for wealthy corporations. We believe in competition: We give pro sports anti-trust exemptions. We oppose punching women and children: They receive two-game suspensions, or less. Players and owners live in a sanctuary of a kind that Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, would understand. Enter these premises and the law doesn't apply.

No more. The tidal wave of outrage that began with the Ray Rice video has now crashed into Adrian Peterson, other perps, and the august personage of Roger Goodell, the head of the NFL. Violence against women and children is now understood by a much wider public than ever before. The discussion is going on in arenas that no one could have predicted (tune into WFAN's Mike Francesa's afternoon radio talk show to listen to real people and a radio host who gets it).

It's this kind of thing that percolates throughout society and changes attitudes. It's already happened and there will be fewer women and children beaten as a result.

The situation is replete with irony. Rice and Peterson particularly have been thought to have been soft-spoken and decent exemplars of professional athletes at a time when loud and aggressive personalities are everywhere. Goodell is a smart and decent human being who missed it. Some of the most assertive calls for harsher punishment come from those who often are inclined to emphasize treatment and forgiveness rather than jail time. No one quite knows how to rank offenses as to which require jail or suspension or exile or not.

All this will get sorted out. But the era of sanctuary for professional athletes for violent crimes is over and that's a good thing. It makes sense to examine the other sanctuaries they and the owners receive, but that's for another time.

Personally, I'm a great believer in second chances and an opponent of the death penalty literally or professionally. If a perp is punished appropriately, is remorseful and wants a chance to resume their public or private pursuits, there ought to be a way to make that happen. But that applies to the 18-year-old car thief as much as a star athlete. And only after we've repaired the injustice that saw so many beaten women and kids return to more of the same.