Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice held a press conference Thursday morning in which he made an apology for brutalizing his wife earlier this year. The two-game suspension that he received for the incident from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has been criticized all week for its leniency. Compared to the much harsher suspensions for players smoking marijuana, it seems disproportionately light.

Rice had issued an earlier apology that used metaphors of violence and seemed to show a lack of responsibility. He made it clear Thursday that he was the responsible party and that his wife was the victim. He pledged that he would be active in the future in the fight against domestic violence.

It is unclear what the real levels of this abuse were in earlier eras because it was rarely reported. Woman who reported it were often scoffed at by police. District attorneys generally declined to prosecute, and the rare case that went it to trial, the victim was subjected to a defense attorney’s assault on her character. The cases were trivialized with an undercurrent of inference that the woman must have done something to deserve it. Women stuck in poverty or traumatized by threat were reticent to report or prosecute. Much of this has now changed and society judges domestic violence in a harsher way.

Athletes have a unique role to play in triggering attitudinal change regarding violence against woman. They are idolized and have a high public profile. When they are instigators of this behavior, it sends a message that it is somehow acceptable to do it because our heroes are involved.

I helped heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis deliver a public service announcement that proclaimed "Real Men Don't Hit Women." When a clearly macho star like Lennox tells young teens that such behavior is not acceptable, it can do more to trigger attitudinal change than a thousand other authority figures. Athletes can lead the way.

Athletes can also make clear that this is not just a "women's issue." For too long domestic violence has been seen as another plank in the feminist movement and their responsibility alone. It is a male issue too. My daughter Katie and I co-hosted a luncheon of men who signed a pledge against domestic violence to benefit an Orange County, California, shelter charity, Human Options. We all have mothers, sisters, relatives, wives, and daughters who need our help and protection from abuse. Nor do we want to live in a society where any woman feels threatened or brutalized.

Ray Rice took a step away from the dark side of human behavior, and we can hope that other athletes will follow.

-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @leighsteinberg.