Ray Rice Wins Appeal Of Indefinite N.F.L. Suspension, Now Immediately Eligible To Play
Former Baltimore Ravens Running Back Ray Rice has won his appeal of the indefinite suspension by the National Football League, a result that is likely to reopen the controversy that buffeted the league at the beginning of the season when many complained that Rice’s original two game suspension, with a monetary fine, for an incident in which he beat his then fiance in an Atlantic City hotel elevator led to a domestic violence charge:
In a defeat for the N.F.L. and Commissioner Roger Goodell, a former federal judge 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.
The decision Friday handed down by Barbara S. Jones, a onetime district court judge, was confirmed by a member of the N.F.L. Players Association.
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 the incident was published by the website TMZ and he was suspended indefinitely.
Jones disagreed with the N.F.L.’s assessment that Rice had misrepresented the severity of the incident when he met with Goodell in June to determine the original penalty. Rather, she said, the league had punished Rice unfairly, and his ban should be overturned.
Rice, who has also filed a grievance against the Ravens for terminating his long-term contract, said he would like to return to the N.F.L., but it is unclear if any team will want to sign him given the potential negative publicity.
Either way, Jones’s decision was a major setback for Goodell, who has been criticized for mishandling Rice’s suspension and 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.
Goodell’s handling of Rice’s suspension is also being investigated by Robert Mueller, the former F.B.I. director who was hired to find out what the commissioner knew about the video of Rice and when. Goodell has insisted that he had not seen the graphic video that prompted him to suspend Rice a second time. If it turns out that he had seen it, the league’s owners are likely to take a dim view of his leadership.
More broadly, Goodell has come under fire for the way he has administered the N.F.L.’s personal conduct policy, which gives the commissioner broad powers to suspend players. Players have criticized Goodell for being arbitrary and opaque in the way he penalizes them. After Rice was suspend indefinitely in September, Goodell promised to overhaul the policy to make it more transparent and consistent.
The union has demanded that the league collectively bargain those changes, but thus far the league has resisted.
Goodell’s fumbling in the Rice case, as well as his suspension of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who was arrested and charged with beating his son, has diminished his image as a commissioner committed to cleaning up the violence in his league. As commissioner, 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 N.F.L.’s logo, and image.
This outcome isn’t entirely unexpected. Back in late October, before the final hearings had even taken place in this arbitration, I noted that there was speculation that Rice would ultimately be successful in being reinstated on the ground that the league had violated the existing agreement with the player’s union, and the disciplinary procedures set forth there, when it suspended him the first time and then, in September, suspended him indefinitely after the video of the incident between him and his now wife was finally made public. At the time, N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell claimed that he had never seen the video before September and, indeed, that as far as he was aware nobody in the entire league had seen the video before then. Many rejected Goodell’s claims at the time as not credible, and noted that at the very least there was some indication that investigators associated with the league, who are known to be incredibly thorough in conducting investigations of virtually any incident involving player conduct off the field, could have obtained a copy of the video very easily from either the hotel itself or from New Jersey law enforcement officials. Additionally, Rice himself claimed that he had clearly revealed to Goodell what had happened that day in the elevator and that his description matched what ended up showing up on the video and that Goodell was not being truthful when he claimed that Rice had not been truthful with him during the investigation that led to the two game suspension. Since it was this alleged untruthfulness that led to the indefinite suspension, the fact that the arbitrator sided with Rice is a fairly strong rebuke of Goodell, the initial investigation of the incident involving Rice, and the attempt by the league to recover from the public relations disaster of the initial suspension, which was seen as inadequate by pretty much everyone.
In her ruling, former Federal Judge Barbara Jones determined that the assertion that Rice had misled Goodell or the N.F.L. in the initial investigation simply wasn’t supported by the evidence:
There are only two real differences as to what the parties assert Rice told the Commissioner on June 16: (1) whether he said “hit” or attempted to minimize the assault by saying “slapped” and (2) whether he said that Mrs. Rice “knocked herself out.” Based on all of the evidence, I conclude that Rice said, “hit,” that he did not say “knocked herself out,” and that he did not mislead the League in the June 16 meeting.6 Moreover, I have viewed the videos from both inside and outside the elevator. They plainly show that Mrs. Rice did slap at Rice, that they continued to argue in the elevator, that Rice “came across” with his arm and hit her, that she fell backwards and hit her head on the side railing of the elevator, and that at that point she was unconscious. To the extent the NFL argues that Rice misled the Commissioner because he”‘chronologically’ described the sequence of events leading to his arrest . . . , [but] never explained ‘causally’ what happened that night,” NFL Post-Hearing Br. at 1, this argument fails. Certainly, no one can say with medical certainty whether the blow itself or the contact with the handrail knocked Mrs. Rice unconscious. Tr. 153:24-154:6. But just as certainly, it is immaterial. Whether the blow itself or hitting the railing knocked Mrs. Rice unconscious, the cause was the hit. Rice reported to Commissioner Goodell that he had hit Mrs. Rice; and his lifting and dropping of her prone body were there for all to see in the outside-the-elevator video. Commissioner Goodell himself, in response to the question, “Did Mr. Rice ever say that he knocked out Ms. Palmer?,” testified, “No, but he took full responsibility for it, he said it is not her fault, it is my fault.” Tr. 95:5-9. In short, I do not find that Rice minimized “causally” what happened that night.
I do not doubt that viewing the video in September evoked horror in Commissioner Goodell as it did with the public. But this does not change the fact that Rice did not lie or mislead the NFL at the June 16 meeting.
Regarding the release of the video and the second suspension, Jones says this:
Following the release of the inside-the-elevator video, which prompted a new round of criticism, the League suspended Rice indefinitely. Now, the League argues that Commissioner Goodell was justified in imposing the second discipline because Rice had misled him and because the video demonstrated a level of violence that he had not understood. NFL Post Hearing Br. at 3, 31, 32. I have found that Rice did not mislead the Commissioner. 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.
At this point, of course, the immediate question becomes whether any team with try to sign Rice to a contract. The Baltimore Ravens obviously won’t be among those teams given the fact that they had already cut him before the N.F.L. imposed the second suspension and are still involved in arbitration with him regarding the remainder of his contract, but that doesn’t speak to what any of the remaining 31 teams in the league might do. It seems to me that it would be unlikely that any team is going to take the public relations risk of signing Rice at this point in the season simply because of the public relations issues that doing so would inevitably create. To a large degree, the controversies regarding how the league and individual teams handled issues involving criminal behavior by players in general, and incidents of domestic violence specifically had died away in mid-September after Rice’s second suspension. The appeal victory is likely to revive them to some extent, but that would occur to an even greater degree if someone decided to sign Rice now. For teams that are already basically out of playoff contention, there’s really no reason to bring the added headache that such media attention would bring to the team, for example. However, even teams that are potential or actual playoff contenders and in need to help at the Running Back position are likely to be reluctant to bring on the added controversy that signing Rice would bring to them. This is especially true given the fact that Rice’s 2013 season production was significantly below what had been seen in previous seasons and the fact that he hasn’t played a game at all in nearly a year now so it’s not even clear he’d be conditioned enough to contribute to the team for the remainder of the year and into the postseason. After this season is over, though, and when the media glare is significantly less, I would not be all that surprised if someone didn’t end up taking a look at Ray Rice for the 2015 season.
The other person with his fate potentially up in the air, of course, is Roger Goodell. The N.F.L. Commissioner was very much under the public gun for his handling of the Rice affair before things seemingly died down in the wake of the indefinite suspension and remains the focus of an internal investigation being headed up by former FBI Director Robert Mueller regarding the league’s handling of this matter. Even though this report is being released on what might be the ultimately “Take Out The Trash Day,” the Friday after Thanksgiving, it is likely to become the focus of media attention this weekend as we head into another Sunday of N.F.L. play and toward the playoffs in January. In the end, of course, Goodell’s fate lies solely within the hands of the 32 owners of the teams of the National Football League, and if they think he’s doing a good job then they’re likely to keep him on. However, if it looks like he’s becoming a liability to the interests of the league there would seem to be no question of what his fate would ultimately end up being.
Here is the arbitrator’s ruling: