ESPN Tightens the Noose on Goodell

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The Baltimore Ravens once again have a lot of explaining to do.

On Friday, ESPN’s  "Outside the Lines" published a damning report claiming that high-ranking team executives knew about the Ray Rice domestic-assault incident just hours after it happened in February. According to Don Van Natta Jr. and Kevin Van Valkenburg, who interviewed more than 20 sources, a police officer relayed the contents of the video from inside the casino elevator where Rice punched his then-fiancee to the Raven’s director of security, who passed on the information to higher-ups.

Since then, the reporters say, executives including owner Steve Bisciotti, president Dick Cass and general manager Ozzie Newsome “began extensive public and private campaigns pushing for leniency for Rice on several fronts: from the judicial system in Atlantic County, where Rice faced assault charges, to commissioner Goodell, who ultimately would decide the number of games Rice would be suspended from this fall, to within their own building, where some were arguing immediately after the incident that Rice should be released.”

If true, the report answers several questions that have arisen in the past seven month while raising others. Many wondered why Rice was admitted to a diversionary program normally used for nonviolent drug offenders. The Ravens allegedly pushed for this option because it would keep the elevator tape sealed.

Then there’s the matter of who saw the elevator tape and when. According to ESPN, Rice’s lawyer obtained a copy in April, and the Ravens, having already known what it contained, chose not to ask for it. Furthermore, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has contended that nobody in the league office had seen the tape before TMZ published it, despite the fact that the Associate Press reported that somebody in the office had received a copy. As ESPN put it, this was “an uncharacteristically passive approach” for a league that has managed to obtain sealed evidence in the past.

It’s all the more damning given the claim that Goodell levied his mild two-game suspension on Rice at the request of Bisciotti. As I’ve been telling anyone who will listen, calls for Goodell’s resignation might be a good start, but his incredibly centralized power is merely a way for any commissioner to do the owners’ bidding. While everyone has understandably been demanding Goodell’s head on a platter, it’s been Bisciotti who’s been calling the shots. And it reinforces why we should be skeptical about the “independent investigation” headed by former FBI director Robert Mueller and overseen by New York Giants owner John Mara and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney.

The ESPN investigation has too many details to cover thoroughly here, but describes a massive, months-long effort to steer the legal system, the league and public opinion to the team’s benefit. And it makes the Ravens’ blatant use of Janay Rice as a prop meant to absorb much of the blame all the more sickening.

And then there’s this: After the second video leaked and public pressure reached a point of no return, the Ravens released Rice and the NFL suspended him indefinitely, a move justified by both parties who claimed Rice had lied about the contents of the tape and that they had been unaware of what really happened. Shortly thereafter, Bisciotti sent Rice a text message thanking him for his years in Baltimore before promising this: “When you're done with football, I'd like you to know you have a job waiting for you with the Ravens helping young guys getting acclimated to the league.” According to ESPN, Rice believes this to be a bribe in exchange for his cooperation, sticking to the story that he lied about the tape.

The Ravens have already denied the report, saying it “contains numerous errors, inaccuracies, false assumptions and, perhaps, misunderstandings” and will address the accusations in a press conference today. But if true, needless to say, it should mean the jobs of Cass, Newsome and Goodell, who seemed all-too-willing to look the other way at Bisciotti’s behest. Bisciotti should also lose his team, a la Donald Sterling and the Los Angeles Clippers.

A main takeaway from the whole Rice affair is an understanding of the overwhelming pressure in football to toe the company line, reaching all the way up to the commissioner’s office. The priority even resulted in the Ravens overriding the wishes of head coach John Harbaugh, who should ostensibly have a say in personnel decisions and wanted Rice cut immediately. Yet once the orders came from above to keep him active after his suspension, Harbaugh repeated the team’s rhetoric about Rice’s great character and contributions to the Baltimore community. As of Sunday, he was continuing to defend the team’s handling.

Things are only going to get more complicated from here. Rice is appealing his lifetime suspension on the grounds that the TMZ version of the elevator tape was edited down. One wonders what could have possibly been cut that would exonerate him, but he’s afforded his day in NFL court, which would be the only part of this incident that has followed any kind of actual procedure. There’s little reason to believe a word the Ravens say from here on out, so who knows what this press conference or subsequent statements will actually bring. And there’s more reason than ever to doubt the veracity of Mueller’s investigation.

At the very least, the ESPN report calls into question every future step the league takes toward correcting its course on domestic violence. It should erase whatever confidence naive fans might still have in the NFL’s ability to police itself. Maybe people are starting to get the message: More than 7,000 fans turned in their Ray Rice jerseys at the team’s jersey exchange this weekend. There will still be those who defend him, and the team, but with each passing day, every sleazy revelation slowly chips away at the NFL’s previously untouchable image.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net