Mightier than justice?

Photographer: Rob Carr/Getty Images

Ray Rice's Crime, and the NFL's

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Ray Rice won his appeal of his indefinite suspension on Friday, and now the running back will be immediately eligible to sign with any NFL team that will have him.

Let’s get this out of the way: The ruling in no way exonerates Rice. It is not an excuse for his actions or a sign that his brutal beating of his wife was not deserving of stiff punishment. It’s not a commentary that domestic violence discipline is out of the NFL’s purview. It’s not even an explicit acknowledgement that Ray Rice deserves a second chance to play professional football.

Rather, this ruling is purely an indictment of the entire NFL disciplinary process. This ruling is a rare win for labor rights in a league in which the union is used to being silenced by management. This ruling puts yet another dent in Commissioner Roger Goodell’s exalted shield of power, further chipping away at his credibility.

To recap: In July, Goodell suspended Ray Rice for two games for knocking his then-fiancee, Janay, unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator. (Take a minute to read her account of what happened that night, as told to ESPN’s Jemele Hill.) At the time, the public had seen a video of Ray dragging Janay’s listless body from the elevator, and was outraged that the NFL would treat such an act so lightly. The league staunchly defended itself, noting precedent and pointing to the collective bargaining agreement. Only when the reaction hit a boiling point did Goodell admit he “didn’t get it right,” and he hurriedly slapped together a new domestic violence policy requiring a six-game suspension for a first-time offender going forward.

Then in September, TMZ released the footage from inside the elevator depicting Ray pummeling Janay. The reaction of immediate horror and disgust led Goodell to immediately suspend Rice indefinitely, while the Baltimore Ravens released him from the team. At the time, Goodell justified this backtracking by stating that he had not seen the second video, and that Rice had misled him as to what exactly happened that night.

Many instantly cried foul on Goodell’s assertion; the Ravens and the league had been on a months-long public-relations campaign to convince the public Janay “knocked herself out” and to lessen Ray’s culpability. That the powerful NFL would not have collected evidence that a tabloid gossip-site managed to obtain seemed rather fishy. The Associated Press almost immediately poked holes in this claim, reporting that a law enforcement official had send the elevator video to the NFL’s Park Avenue offices back in April.

The NFL Players’ Association appealed the suspension on Rice’s behalf, specifically challenging Goodell’s claim that the extended punishment was based on “new evidence.” In effect, the union invoked the same calls for due process as stipulated by the CBA to which the NFL initially pointed to defend the first two-game suspension. Article 46, Section 4 of the CBA, known as the “one penalty rule,” prohibits a team and the commissioner from disciplining a player twice for the same offense.

In her decision in Rice’s appeal, former U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones ruled that the league clearly violated this rule, definitively answering the league’s claim that Rice’s version of events was “starkly different” from what was seen in the elevator video. “It was not,” Jones writes. “Rice did not lie or mislead the NFL.” 

The NFL is reaping the fruit of the self-serving inconsistency in its disciplinary process. The league missed its chance to properly discipline Rice back in July. Contrary to the league’s initial claim that the CBA and precedent prevented the initial suspension from exceeding two games, Jones writes that “an arbitrator would be hard-pressed to find that the Commissioner had abused his discretion” had he come down with an indefinite suspension the first time.

But initially, Goodell didn’t take Rice’s case seriously enough, either because of what could be construed as woeful investigative incompetence or as a willful attempt to know as little as possible of the night in question. In her decision, Jones calls out the failure by Goodell and NFL vice president of labor policy Adolpho Birch to take detailed notes during their meeting with Rice. She also questions the credibility of their testimony that Rice misled them, due to “the vagueness of their recollections.”

This explains the conflicting versions the NFL says it heard: Whether Janay hit Ray first; whether Ray “slapped” or “hit” Janay in the elevator; whether or not Janay “knocked herself out” on the elevator handrail. Ultimately, the videos and the more detailed testimony by an NFLPA rep who was also present at that meeting prevented the NFL from further obfuscating the truth.

It seems the NFL and Goodell wanted little clarification on details that would derail their attempt to minimize what Rice had done, and were able to take the case so lightly because of “the inadequacy of words to convey the seriousness of domestic violence.”

This Rice ruling could have bearing on Adrian Peterson’s appeal of his season-long suspension for child abuse. In addition to cementing the “arbitrary” nature of NFL discipline, Jones’s repeatedly states that Goodell “could not retroactively apply” the new domestic violence policy carrying harsher penalties toward Rice.

Of course, the key difference between Rice's and Peterson’s appeals is the person overseeing them. The CBA gives Goodell the power to oversee disciplinary appeals, but Rice’s case was handled by an independent and neutral arbitrator because Goodell himself was set to testify. To oversee Peterson’s case, Goodell has appointed Harold Henderson, a former longtime NFL executive who recently upheld Josh Gordon’s year-long marijuana suspension. It’s hard to see how this arbitrator is either independent or neutral.

In both Rice and Peterson’s cases, it’s important to separate the crime from the method of punishment. As I wrote when the league suspended Peterson, the penalty might be appropriate, but the inconsistency and lack of transparency with which the league determines discipline is still troubling. True justice begins with the NFL playing by its own rules, which allow for a wide breadth of action, while fairly penalizing players in a way that doesn’t violate their rights as employees.

As Nita Chaudhary, co-founder of women’s rights group Ultraviolet, said in a statement, “The problem here is the NFL’s history of sweeping abuse under the rug.” Goodell tried to make that history go away by issuing a reactive penalty after the fact, and it backfired. It’s unsettling and unsatisfying to think of Rice potentially playing for another team this season, but so is the thought of vacating future punishments, however deserved, because of flaws in the process. 

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