For several months after we saw her being dragged unconscious from an elevator by her fiancé, Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice, Janay Palmer became the NFL's Schroedinger's Cat.
We saw the aftermath of something. The event itself – whatever had happened inside the metal box – remained obscure.
In that conceptual space, Palmer could exist in two states – as both an abuser and the abused.
Putting aside common sense, the NFL chose to believe the former. Now it is reaping the whirlwind for its cynicism.
On Monday, TMZ released surveillance video showing the entire story. It starts with Palmer and Rice arguing outside the elevator. He says something to her. She reaches out and bats at him, then keeps walking.
They both get into the elevator. Rice moves threateningly into Palmer's space. She raises her arm defensively. He slaps her hard across the face, then backs away. Palmer comes across the elevator, angry. Rice swings from the hip, a left cross. He catches Palmer flush on the jaw. She goes down hard, possibly slamming her head into the handrail on the way down. She's out. So little time has passed, the doors have only just closed.
Rice stands there for a second. The doors open. He tries to drag Palmer out of the elevator, but isn't quick enough. The doors close on him. When they open again , he's got her under the shoulders.
He drags her halfway across the threshold, and drops her like a sack of potatoes. Her skirt is hitched up over her underwear. Her feet are still inside the elevator. Rice absent-mindedly retrieves a shoe she's lost. Two passersby appear. One of them is a casino security guard. Presumably, this is where Rice begins his prevarications. He tries dragging Palmer to her feet. She can't manage it, and collapses in a heap. She's conscious, but only barely. Rice stands, hands in pockets, watching her. It's left to someone else to comfort her.
When the attack first made news, it was described by Rice's lawyer as "a misunderstanding." The Ravens called it "a situation."
"After reviewing surveillance footage it appeared both parties were involved in a physical altercation," Atlantic City police said in a release. This is good example of facts obscuring the truth.
The NFL clung desperately to this initial description of events. Rice and Palmer gave a press conference in which he spoke a great deal about God, and she somehow ended up apologizing. A day after he was indicted on assault charges, the pair was married.
Almost immediately, Palmer was assailed by a whisper campaign of character assassination. It wasn't what was said. It was what wasn't.
Nobody inside the NFL family – official or unofficial – spoke out on her behalf. Instead, coaches and players were lining up behind Rice, citing his character and decency.
Palmer was invisible in all this. We were reminded again and again that she had once been arrested for shoplifting.
Rice was suspended for two games. When that prompted outrage, the NFL's media proxies were left debating in code language what might have happened in that elevator. This started a public connect-the-dots effort – if the NFL has seen the video; and the NFL has been so lenient; then mustn't the NFL know something we all don't know; and wouldn't that tend to implicate Janay Palmer, a 125-pound woman, as the person who started a fist fight with her 215-pound partner?
Much of America was willing to believe a frankly unbelievable story – that Ray Rice was the good guy in a fight that ended up with a woman flat out on the floor – because the NFL lent its moral weight to that suggestion.
On Monday, the NFL was into full flail. League officials had not seen the video, multiple anonymous sources assured every major U.S. outlet, after many other anonymous sources had previously suggested to the same outlets they had. I call shenanigans on that one right away.
As with any other billion-dollar corporation, the NFL is shot through with ex law-enforcement types. So is the casino where Rice attacked his future wife. The idea that no one was able to quietly pass a copy of that video from one organization to the other – as a courtesy between colleagues – is preposterous.
I find it far easier to believe that several NFL executives saw that tape, but came to it with a predetermined focus – to exculpate one of their own.
The Atlantic City police had provided them with the template – a fight, and both sides to blame. They saw that initial swipe from Palmer ("She started it"). They saw her come across the elevator ("She's the aggressor"). They convinced themselves up was down.
This is what happens when you bring a lawyerly outlook to simple issues of right and wrong. You get lost in minutiae and your own self-interest. You're able to convince yourself that what you've seen – a very large man viciously striking a very small woman – is a complicated matter.
On Monday, the league suspended Rice indefinitely. The Ravens cut him. His career is finished. He's toxic.
Before we start gloating about that, remember that Rice is still married. He's going to be home a lot more, with time on his hands and a grievance to nurse. Poor Janay Palmer.
The NFL will try to quickly move the focus back onto the field. That will probably work. A lot of people howl about the NFL's wobbly moral compass, and most of them watch 12 hours of football every Sunday.
What won't survive is our presumption of the league's basic goodness. We assume that most right-minded people would watch that video and be shocked into action. Apparently, the NFL was not.
That loss of faith won't hurt their bottom line. But, man, if that really was what they set out to protect here, Earthly riches are the least of their existential problems.