National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged in August that he “didn’t get it right” when he initially suspended Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for two games for domestic violence.
On Friday, an arbitrator ruled that Goodell didn’t get his second, much stiffer, punishment of Rice right, either.
Barbara Jones, a former US District judge who was appointed as an independent arbitrator for the case, overturned Rice’s indefinite suspension from the NFL and reinstated him immediately, calling the punishment “an abuse of discretion” in her written ruling.
Rice was first suspended in July for punching his then-fiancee (now wife) in an Atlantic City elevator in a February incident, rendering her unconscious. When the celebrity news website TMZ obtained and released a video of the incident from inside the elevator on Sept. 8, the Ravens cut Rice, and Goodell suspended him indefinitely.
The NFL justified the harsher penalty by claiming Rice was “ambiguous” in his description of the episode when he met with Goodell and NFL officials on June 16, and that the TMZ video showed “a starkly different sequence of events.”
However, Jones painted a different version in her decision, which was released Friday after two weeks of deliberation.
“The sole issue in this matter is whether what Rice told the Commissioner and other League representatives about the assault at their June 16, 2014, meeting was ‘a starkly different sequence of events’ than what was captured on the ‘inside-the-elevator’ video,” Jones wrote. “It was not.
“In so holding, I find that the NFLPA [The NFL Players Association] has carried its burden of demonstrating that Rice did not mislead the Commissioner at the June 16 meeting and, therefore, that the imposition of a second suspension based upon the same incident, and the same known facts about that incident, was arbitrary.”
Jones wrote that the NFL knew of the existence of the second, “inside-the-elevator” video, and that Rice had not lied in the June 16 meeting.
“Various sources, including NFL security, had reported its existence,” Jones wrote of the second video. “Rice had received this video in discovery during his criminal case, but it had not been aired publicly, as had the first video. The NFL never asked Rice for the second video.”
Rice was arrested at the time of the incident and charged with assault. In March, a grand jury increased the charge to aggravated assault, a felony, but in May, Rice was accepted into a pretrial intervention program that allowed him to avoid prosecution.
Rice will have the case dismissed if he completes an anger management course, attends counseling, and does not commit any other crimes for one year.
The Associated Press reported that Rice said Friday in a statement released by the players union: ‘‘I would like to thank Judge Barbara Jones, the NFL Players Association, my attorneys, agents, advisers, family, friends and fans — but 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. 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 is now free to sign with any team and resume his career.
However, he faces long odds of finding work in the NFL this season with just five games to go. Signing Rice would subject any team to intense public scrutiny, given the ugliness of the domestic violence incident, as well as put that team directly at odds with Goodell, who has been popular among owners.
Rice is also 27, considered old for a running back, and is coming off a career-worst season in which he rushed for only 660 yards and averaged 3.1 yards per carry. A more likely scenario is Rice signing with a team in the offseason.
In an interview with CBS Sept. 10, two days after Rice’s indefinite suspension was handed down, Patriots owner Robert Kraft said, “I don’t think he will play another NFL game. I would be shocked if some team would pick him up.”
The NFLPA has long been at odds with Goodell over his role as the sole decider of punishment for players who run afoul of the law. Friday’s decision was a major victory for the union, which fought against Rice’s increased suspension as an arbitrary punishment.
“This decision is a victory for a disciplinary process that is fair and transparent,” the NFLPA said in a statement. “We take no pleasure in seeing a decision that confirms what we have been saying about the Commissioner’s office acting arbitrarily.”
Goodell usually is the one who presides over player appeals of suspensions, but the NFL and NFLPA agreed in October on Jones, marking the first time an independent arbitrator has heard an appeal in the eight-year history of the NFL’s personal conduct policy.
The NFL said Friday it would abide by Jones’s decision.
Critics condemned Goodell for being too light on Rice with the initial two-game suspension in July, then Goodell faced even more scrutiny when TMZ released the video in September. Goodell said in a letter to NFL owners in late August that he “didn’t get it right” with the initial punishment, and amended the NFL’s personal conduct policy to increase the penalties for domestic violence to six games for a first offense, with Goodell still holding power to adjust the penalty based on mitigating factors.
However, Jones wrote in her decision that Goodell personally called Rice after announcing the new policy and told him that his two-game suspension would not be increased.
Goodell and the NFL are in the process of drafting an entirely new personal conduct policy, which they hope to have completed by February. Several outside organizations are helping Goodell craft the new policy, and it is expected that he will have some of his authority reduced.
Those partnerships with several domestic violence advocacy groups are also what led to the NFL’s “No More” video campaign as criticism of the league mounted. The videos are a series of public service announcements featuring current and former players against a stark white backdrop saying “No more” when it comes to ignoring domestic violence.
Though Goodell has had the support of the NFL’s 32 franchise owners so far, the owners are waiting for the release of their self-commissioned report by attorney Robert Mueller before making any final determinations on Goodell’s job status.
Jones’s decision Friday doesn’t cast a positive light on Goodell’s vigilance in this case.
“The testimony of Commissioner Goodell and [NFL vice president Adolpho] Birch is further diminished by the vagueness of their recollections,” Jones wrote. “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.
“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.”