Ray Rice’s NFL Suspension Thrown Out by Arbitrator

Ray Rice’s indefinite suspension from the National Football League has been lifted after an independent arbitrator ruled in his favor, clearing the way for the running back to continue his playing career nine months after he knocked out his fiancee in a hotel casino elevator.

Rice, 27, who played for the Baltimore Ravens, initially was suspended in July by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for two games. The ban was increased in September after a video of Rice punching Janay Palmer was made public on the Internet.

Former U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones, who was appointed to arbitrate the case, ruled that Rice’s suspension must end immediately. Jones said Rice didn’t mislead Goodell about the incident during a meeting prior to the first suspension -- as the NFL had argued -- and that the indefinite ban was an “abuse of discretion and must be vacated.”

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement that the league respects Jones’s decision. A three-time Pro Bowl selection, Rice was cut by the Ravens on Sept. 8 and is eligible to return to the NFL immediately.

“I made an inexcusable mistake and accept full responsibility for my actions,” Rice, who remains unsigned, said in a statement released by the National Football League Players Association. “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.”

A two-day hearing in the case, which included testimony from both Rice and Goodell, concluded Nov. 6.

Punished Twice

Rice’s appeal claimed that he was punished twice in the same case, a violation of the collective bargaining agreement, and that the NFL’s punishment was based on the lack of a fair and impartial process, including Goodell’s role. Goodell was the first witness called by the union, and both Rice and his wife, who was the victim of the assault, attended the hearing, ESPN reported, citing people it didn’t identify.

“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,” Jones wrote in her decision. “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.”

Jones, who served in the Southern District of New York from 1996-2013, is currently a partner in the law firm of Zuckerman Spaeder.

Brian Billick, who coached the Ravens before Rice’s arrival, said Rice remains a capable rusher and will probably find employment with an NFL team.

Rice’s Return

“As much as it’s a tough PR move to bring in someone like Ray Rice given his recent history, I think someone will do it,” Billick, now an analyst for the NFL Network, said in a phone interview before the ruling. “He’s obviously still a capable back and it’s coupled with the fact that outside of this case, Ray Rice has been a model citizen. I think people will factor that in.”

While it would be easier for teams to sign Rice during the offseason, giving them time to a prepare a plan for his likely controversial introduction, his immediate signing isn’t out of the question, Billick said. After this weekend, there are four weeks left in the NFL’s regular season.

“There are enough teams depleted at running back, so I wouldn’t preclude him coming back to the league right now,” he said.

Rice’s case set off a storm of criticism for the NFL, leading to protests outside games and women’s groups calling for Goodell’s ouster. Owners stood by Goodell, who hired three women to overhaul the league’s personal-conduct policy and promised a new policy before the Super Bowl in February.

Elevator Altercation

The Ravens terminated Rice’s contract Sept. 8 and he was banned indefinitely from the league after the website TMZ posted video of him knocking out his then-fiancee in a New Jersey casino elevator during a February altercation.

Rice got the initial two-game ban in July from Goodell. At the time, the league had only seen footage of Rice dragging an unconscious Palmer from the elevator, Goodell said after the second video surfaced.

The commissioner also said the league initially erred in its punishment of Rice.

Goodell’s claim that the NFL hadn’t seen the footage from inside the elevator was challenged by an Associated Press story reporting that a law enforcement official sent the video to NFL headquarters in New York five months before Rice was banned.

Jones said she doesn’t doubt the second video from inside the elevator “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.”

Peterson Case

Rice’s case was the most publicized of several domestic abuse incidents involving NFL players in recent months.

Minnesota Vikings All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson was indicted in September on child-abuse charges for beating his son with a small tree branch, known as a switch. Peterson, the NFL’s 2012 Most Valuable Player, on Nov. 5 reached a plea bargain to avoid trial. He was suspended for at least the rest of the season on Nov. 18 and remains on the commissioner’s exempt list while appealing, collecting his $11.75 million annual salary even though he only played in one game this season.

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