In a stinging rebuke to the NFL’s system of player justice, a former federal judge acting as arbitrator on Friday nullified the indefinite suspension handed to former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice after he punched his then-girlfriend unconscious at an Atlantic City casino earlier this year.
The decision reignites an imbroglio that has kept commissioner Roger Goodell, long known as the league’s “enforcer” for his “judge, jury, executioner” policy of meting out punishment, on the hot seat.
In vacating Rice’s punishment under a collective bargaining agreement, Judge Barbara Jones said the league broke the rules by punishing Rice twice for the same incident, even though the league, including Mr. Goodell, knew the full facts of the case from the beginning.
In her opinion, Judge Jones rules that “the imposition of a second suspension based upon the same incident, and the same known facts about that incident, was arbitrary.”
The upshot “is a damning indictment of the way the NFL handles domestic violence,” writes Amanda Taub, on Vox.com. “The league initially went easy on Rice, then reversed itself after a public outcry on the grounds that he'd misled them. But it turns out they were well-informed all along – they just didn't think pummeling a woman was worthy of serious punishment, and now the arbitrator is making them stick with that original call.”
The league first suspended Rice for two games after video surfaced of him dragging his unconscious then-girlfriend, now wife, Janay, out of an elevator. Goodell then suspended Rice indefinitely after another video surfaced from inside the elevator, where Rice can be seen hitting Janay so hard she loses her footing and cracks her head on a railing, losing consciousness.
In meting out the second punishment, Goodell said Rice had originally given him a different version of events, noting that Janay “knocked herself unconscious” when she hit the railing. But the judge in her ruling found Rice’s version more believable – that in the meeting he had shown Goodell how he had “hit” her, not “slapped,” as the league had described it.
While Goodell’s “enforcer” stance has helped broaden the NFL’s appeal, Friday’s ruling shows that the strategy has its limits – especially as Goodell is chiefly in charge of protecting the investments of all 32 NFL team owners.
“Really, Goodell's mistake was making himself solely in charge of personal conduct discipline,” writes Ty Schalter, on Bleacher Report. “Even a person of unquestioned integrity and nigh-infinite wisdom couldn't levy a perfectly fair punishment in every case. He was bound to make an unacceptably unpopular ruling eventually.”
To be sure, Goodell is the one who allowed an outside arbiter to hear Rice’s appeal, and he has set in motion a number of independent initiatives to find ways to improve the league’s system of justice. Although the ruling is another major hit to his credibility, Goodell has, it can be argued, already largely weathered the storm by publicly declaring a harsh, if belated punishment, even though it turns out to have been, according to the judge, arbitrary.
Several NFL players tweeted their support for Rice, saying they hope he can return to the NFL. It’s by no means a certainty that he will slip onto another roster, given in part his public relations problems and also his measly 3.1 yards per carry in 2013.
Other players saw an opportunity for additional reform at the very highest levels of America’s most popular sport.
“I believe that this also presents an opportunity for the NFL and NFLPA to address the disciplinary process,” Ravens’ linebacker Chris Canty told Aaron Wilson, of Bleacher Report.