Was CBS right to nix Rihanna’s NFL pre-game vocals amid the Ray Rice scandal?

In the wake of the Ray Rice domestic violence scandal, CBS cancelled a pre-game opener featuring singer Rihanna on Jay-Z’s “Run this Town.”  The hit song was to serve as the backdrop while actor Don Cheadle narrated sequences meant to energize NFL audiences about the Baltimore Ravens vs Pittsburgh Steelers “ThursdayNight Football” season debut on CBS.  A comedy routine was also axed.

Was Rihanna cut because of her past issues with domestic violence at the hands of singer Chris Brown? CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus told SI.com that the issue was “tone,” not Rihanna’s well-publicized and graphic photos of her post-altercation face.

“We thought journalistically and from a tone standpoint, we needed to have the appropriate tone and coverage. A lot of the production elements we wanted in the show are being eliminated because of time or tone,” said McManus.

CBS instead opened with information and commentary about the increasingly complicated case of Ray Rice’s videotaped altercation with his then-fiance, now-wife Janay. Video from inside an Atlantic City hotel elevator was released in early September and shows the former Ravens player punching Janay in the face, rendering her unconscious.

A previous tape from the hotel’s lobby was released in April and showed Rice dragging Janay’s unconscious body out of the elevator. At that time, the NFL suspended Rice for a mere two games, much to the chagrin of domestic violence advocates who believed such behavior warranted a sterner response.

In the days since the release of the second tape, Rice has been kicked off of the Ravens and suspended from the NFL, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has had to contend with a growing number of people calling for him to step down.

At issue has been when the NFL knew about what happened inside of the elevator. If NFL executives had seen the tape or knew the contents of the tape, why would the release of the video to the public be the catalyst for harsher punishment? If executives knew of the punch from the beginning and still thought a two-day suspension was adequate, that speaks to a devaluation of women by the NFL brass.

Rectifying such a situation calls for real action, not just cutting out a song that features a domestic violence victim. CBS’ McManus also claims that the NFL gave him “zero pressure” about how to handle CBS coverage.

Rihanna or no Rihanna, any broadcast would have featured some talk of Ray Rice, because it is an inescapable sports story right now. So neither CBS nor the NFL gets any special recognition for addressing that topic. If the “Thursday Night Football” season debut did not feature the Ravens, I highly doubt that the “Run this Town” opening would have been cut. The expected “tone” (which is apparently a favorite word of McManus now) would have been one of letting NFL players do their jobs and the game must go on and all the usual clichés one hears in such situations.

There was no way to “win” for CBS or the NFL in terms of getting the opener right, unless everything was cut in favor of Goodell turning in his resignation, but not before instituting a zero tolerance policy on domestic violence. A girl can dream.

If Rihanna’s past experience with domestic violence was a factor in not using a song that features her vocals, then that is unfortunate and shows how the stigma of domestic violence can strike at any time and in any form for its victims. Being pummeled by an ex-lover should never determine whether or not a person is capable of sharing his or her talents.

Additionally, the focus should be less on music choices and more on aligning our laws and corporate rules with our views on domestic violence and with the value we attach to human life. If we believe domestic violence is a problem, our accepted legal and business repercussions should reflect that.

There was, however, a bright spot in last night’s NFL pre-game segments. The revamped “Thursday Night Football” coverage featured an eloquent statement about domestic violence from veteran sports commentator James Brown. “According to domestic violence experts, more than three women per day lose their lives at the hands of their partners. That means that since the night February 15th in Atlantic City [when the elevator incident occurred], more than 600 women have died.

“So this is yet another call to men to stand up and take responsibility for their thoughts, their words, their deeds and as Deion [Sanders] says to give help or to get help, because our silence is deafening and deadly,” said Brown.

Well said, Mr. Brown.