In a defeat for the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell, an arbitrator has overturned the indefinite suspension of Ray Rice, the former Baltimore Ravens running back who was videotaped knocking out his fiancée in a hotel elevator.
Barbara S. Jones, a former district court judge, said Goodell’s decision in September to change Rice’s original suspension was “arbitrary” and an “abuse of discretion.” She disagreed with the NFL’s argument that Rice had misrepresented the severity of the incident when he met with Goodell in June to determine the original penalty.
Jones presided over a two-day meeting, on Nov. 5 and 6, of Rice’s appeal of his ban. Rice argued that he had been penalized twice for the same incident, once when Goodell suspended him for two games and fined him $500,000 and again a few months later when video of him punching Janay Rice, now his wife, was published by the website TMZ. He was subsequently released by the Ravens and suspended indefinitely by the NFL.
Jones noted in her decision that after Goodell increased the punishment for a first offense under the personal conduct policy from two to six games, “the commissioner called Rice to assure him that the new policy would not affect him — that it was forward-looking and his penalty would not be increased.”
The punishment changed, though, after the more graphic video was released.
“I have found that Rice did not mislead the commissioner,” Jones wrote in her decision. “Moreover, any failure on the part of the league to understand the level of violence was not due to Rice’s description of the event, but to the inadequacy of words to convey the seriousness of domestic violence.
“That the league did not realize the severity of the conduct without a visual record also speaks to their admitted failure in the past to sanction this type of conduct more severely.”
The NFL Players Association hailed the decision, which it called in a statement a “victory for a disciplinary process that is fair and transparent.”
Women’s groups and advocates for victims of domestic violence, meanwhile, said they were unhappy with the decision to reinstate Rice and called on the NFL to do more to change its attitudes toward women.
“They must dismantle the sexist machine that is the NFL and rebuild it to respect and include women at all levels,” said Teresa C. Younger, president of the Ms. Foundation for Women.
In a first-person story released Friday by ESPN, Janay Rice said she has not seen and will not watch the in-elevator video that showed Ray Rice punching her in the face, which knocked her off her feet and into the back wall of the elevator and left her unconscious on the floor, where Ray Rice dragged her out by her feet.
She also told ESPN it’s “hard to accept being called a ‘victim’” and “never in my life have I seen abuse, nor have I seen any woman in my family physically abused.”
“I know there are so many different opinions out there about me — that I’m weak, that I’m making excuses and covering up abuse — and that some people question my motives for staying with Ray. … If it took our situation becoming headline news to show domestic violence is happening in this country, that’s a positive.”
In a statement released by the players association, Ray Rice thanked Jones, the union and “most importantly, my wife Janay.”
“I made an inexcusable mistake and accept full responsibility for my actions. I am thankful that there was a proper appeals process in place to address this issue,” he said. “I will continue working hard to improve myself and be the best husband, father and friend, while giving back to my community and helping others to learn from my mistakes.”
Rice, who has also filed a grievance against the Ravens for terminating his long-term contract, has been a free agent. The judge’s decision means he is now eligible to play upon signing a new contract. Whether any team will consider signing him is another matter.
Several former NFL executives, coaches and current league insiders told The Baltimore Sun in recent days that Rice will get another chance, but most likely not until the 2015 season. Rice has not played this season and was coming off a weak 2013 season.
“I think it’s going to be tough for him to get his first crack at it in 2014,” said former Ravens executive and Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage. “I would tend to think that there would be — for lack of a better term — a cooling-off period for him to reprove himself. But we’re a country of second chances and I do think he’ll get another opportunity.”
The NFL said it respected Jones’ decision to reinstate Rice, but his reinstatement is a major setback for Goodell, who has been criticized as being insensitive to the issue of domestic violence. Some fans and columnists had called for him to resign, and several key sponsors had admonished the league for the way it handled the case in what has amounted to the biggest crisis of Goodell’s eight-year tenure as commissioner.
The handling of Rice’s suspension is also being investigated by Robert Mueller, a former FBI director who was hired by the league to find out what the commissioner knew about the video of Rice and when. Goodell has insisted he had not initially seen the graphic video that prompted him to suspend Rice a second time.
Goodell’s fumbling in the Rice case, as well as his delayed suspension of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who was arrested and charged with injuring his 4-year-old son by hitting him with a tree branch as punishment, has led to questions about how Goodell has administered the NFL’s personal conduct policy, which gives the commissioner broad powers to suspend players.
“This definitely puts one more big stain on his tenure as NFL commissioner,” said Mark Conrad, director of the sports business program at Fordham University. “Yes, he has to eat crow and yes, he has to be more consistent and yes, he made a mistake he couldn’t get out of.”
To clean up the violence in his league, Goodell made himself the disciplinarian in crisis after crisis that threatened to tarnish the league’s image. Like other league officials before him, he made clear that his top priority as commissioner was to “protect the shield,” a reference to the NFL’s logo, and image.
In the past, he responded decisively to crises, but many of Goodell’s decisions drew criticism, with some arguing that they were designed to protect the league or ease the return of players accused of misconduct. When the New England Patriots were caught filming the New York Jets’ defensive signals, Goodell fined the team and coach Bill Belichick but destroyed the seized videotapes before it could be determined whether the taping was part of a larger pattern that included other teams.
In 2012, Goodell’s suspensions of several players in the New Orleans Saints bounty case were overturned after a review by former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who said the facts did not support the punishments.
Peter Ginsberg, a veteran New York attorney who represented former Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma in that case, said Friday that “Goodell has shown once again that he does not follow the rules in his treatment of players and that his judgment cannot be trusted. …”
“Rather than admitting he had been ignoring the domestic violence issue for years and had failed to subject past violators to real scrutiny, commissioner Goodell turned his own failings on Ray by punishing him a second time for an offense about which commissioner Goodell had been fully and completely aware when he imposed the original suspension. That action threatened to end Ray’s career.”
After his initial two-game ban in the Rice case drew the ire of fans and women’s groups for being too lenient, Goodell acknowledged a month later that he had “got it wrong” and announced a new policy in which first-time offenders in domestic violence cases would miss a minimum of six games.
But, in her decision, Jones noted that Goodell did not consider changing Rice’s discipline because “I gave him the discipline, I felt it was appropriate.”
That promise was scrapped two weeks later, on Sept. 8, after the video of Rice punching his fiancée, now his wife, became public.
“People expect a lot from the NFL — we accept that, we embrace that,” Goodell told CBS News then. “That’s our opportunity to make a difference, not just in the NFL but in society in general.”
The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Associated Press contributed to this report.