In February, TMZ posted a video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice dragging his apparently unconscious then-fiancée (now his wife Janay Rice) from an elevator at the Revel casino in Atlantic City. The incident led to Ray Rice's arrest for domestic violence, though he was assigned to a pre-trial diversion program rather than being charged with a crime. It also led him to receive a two-game suspension from the NFL. League commissioner Roger Goodell, after facing harsh criticism for the relatively light punishment (first-time marijuana offenders generally get suspended for more games), he announced a new, much stricter league domestic-violence policy in August.
But the original video didn't show exactly what had happened inside the elevator, leaving an opening for Rice supporters to assume that he was acting in self-defense. Janay Rice apologized for her role in the incident, which seemed to confirm this suspicion.
Then TMZ released a second video (warning: it's very graphic) from inside the casino elevator. It shows Rice punching Palmer — and makes it clear that what happened wasn't a "fight," but an attack. The outrage over the new video led the Ravens to terminate Rice's contract, likely ending his NFL career.
Rice's case got attention to begin with because of the first video. But if this new video had been released in February as well, it would have substantially affected how the public saw the case — and might have led the Ravens to cut him sooner. When it takes video evidence to get the public to take abuse seriously, the power is in the hands of the people who have the videos — and decide whether or not to release them.
Why video matters
Without documentation, the victim's and aggressor's accounts become a "he said, she said" — and we know from media studies that people are more likely to believe accounts that confirm their prejudices. If people tend to side with the person they already know, like or trust — in this case, the star player — video evidence becomes one of the only things that can break that impasse. (Something similar happens in the case of police abuse — where video evidence is also key to breaking a "he said, she said" impasse.)
When a domestic violence incident happens, it's routine for the police to arrest both participants — which is what happened to Ray Rice and Janay Palmer. That makes it easy for police and the public to assume that both parties were to blame until proven otherwise. A video can provide some objective evidence that this was, in fact, a situation with a victim and an aggressor. Without video of what happened inside the elevator, it was certainly convenient for NFL fans to assume that Janay Rice couldn't have been totally blameless. And when the Ravens organization tweeted her apology, it encouraged fans to interpret the incident that way.
It's not that people don't believe that domestic violence is a bad thing, in theory. It's just that, without seeing it with their own eyes, they tend to assume that whatever's happening in practice can't really be that bad. When there's documentation, people seem much more willing to get angry about it.
The power lies with the person who decided to leak one video — and the people who decided not to leak the other
This means that the people doing the recording have a ton of power — and a ton of responsibility. They are the difference between a public outcry and silence.
Think of what happened to former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling earlier this year — his discriminatory landlord practices had some NBA pundits calling for his head years before he got fired, but it took a recording of a conversation with his girlfriend for his racist attitudes to enrage the public.
But the new Rice video is an illustration of what happens when the person who has the video decides not to release it. For whatever reason, someone who had access to the surveillance footage from outside the casino elevator — which caught Rice dragging Palmer's apparently unconscious body — decided in February that it was something the public needed to see. But whoever had access to the footage from inside the elevator, which showed Rice punching Palmer out, made the opposite choice.
If no one had decided to release either video, it's extremely unlikely the case would have generated the kind of outrage it did — much less gotten NFL commissioner Goodell to change league policy. But if both videos had been released at once, it would have been much harder for the Ravens and their fans to assume for months that Janay Rice was to blame.