Ray Rice knocked out his wife in an elevator on February 15, he told the truth in Roger Goodell’s office on June 16, and now Rice can play football again.
That’s the simplest way to summarize the November 28 decision made by the National Football League’s appointed arbitrator, which overturned the indefinite suspension of the former Baltimore Ravens star running back.
In reaching her decision, the arbitrator — former U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones — found that the second suspension handed down in September by commissioner Roger Goodell was an abuse of discretion and that it could not stand. As Ms. Jones wrote:
“The NFLPA 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 the incident, was arbitrary.”
Although successful in the end, the mountain to climb for Rice, 27, on his appeal was very steep.
I. Mount Goodell
Why was it steep?
Labor law demands a very high deference to Goodell’s decision. Jones admitted as much in her ruling, stating “it cannot be disputed that the Commissioner has always the sole discretion to determine what constitutes conduct detrimental to the integrity. . . [of] the game of football.”
Secondly, according to Jones’ ruling, Rice had to prove Goodell abused his discretion by showing that Goodell’s determination was so arbitrary or capricious that the suspension was not fair or consistent.
And finally, the commissioner’s own credibility was on the line as he was compelled to testify in the arbitration hearing on November 5. Goodell, along with other league officials, testified as to what they knew and when they knew it. Further, Goodell claimed Rice’s account of the events (at the June 16 meeting) were misleading.
However, Rice’s team didn’t have to do much of the climbing. Instead, the successful appeal was served up to Rice like a Jay Cutler turnover.
II. The First Video Tape
Rice was suspended twice for the same conduct, stemming from a February 15 physical altercation in an Atlantic City casino elevator between him and his now-wife.
The first suspension, issued on July 16, was only for two games. This came after commissioner Goodell and other NFL officials spoke with Rice at a pre-discipline hearing on June 16. Further, the league reviewed “the first video” from hotel surveillance cameras on the night of February 15 at the (now closed) Revel Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, NJ.
The first video shows Mrs. Rice slapping Rice as the two approach and enter an elevator. Moments later the video shows Rice trying to carry an unconscious Mrs. Rice out of the elevator; dropping her on the floor and then trying to move her legs out of the way of the elevator door.
The key to the first video is that it didn’t show what happened in the elevator. The NFL knew there was a camera inside the elevator and thought it was likely that there was a “second video.” However, the NFL never obtained it, nor did they even require Rice, who possessed it from discovery in his criminal case, to hand over a copy.
Instead, without viewing the second video, Goodell issued Rice’s first suspension of only two games.
Goodell claimed in his testimony that this suspension was based on the accountability Rice took for the incident, the remorse he showed, and his acceptance of responsibility. Goodell also took into account prior league domestic violence cases that resulted in discipline of no more than two games.
Strong public criticism followed after the first suspension, leading Goodell to claim in a letter to league owners that he “didn’t get it right” and to create a new personal conduct policy that set a minimum six-game suspension for first-time domestic violence offenders. However, the new policy didn’t apply to Rice’s suspension.
Then on September 8, public criticism went from strong to downright visceral.
III. The Second Video Tape
It was on September 8 that the second video surfaced. The public viewed it, the media viewed it and Goodell viewed it. There is no doubt at that moment, like the guy who came up with Coke II, Goodell realized he had made a huge mistake.
The video captured Rice hitting Mrs. Rice and her falling to the floor unconscious after hitting her head on the elevator railing. It also showed Rice trying to pick her corpse-like body off the elevator floor, dragging her by the legs outside the elevator, and then dropping her as the doors begin to open.
Even the most ardent misogynist was offended by the second video, and as television pundits once again grabbed their soap boxes and raced to microphones, Goodell tried to extinguish the fire in front of him by suspending Rice indefinitely.
Documents from the arbitration show that the league issued the second suspension because the “second video showed a starkly different sequence of events” than what Rice told Goodell at the June 16 hearing.
With this reasoning the NFL drew a line in the sand. Either Rice misled Goodell at the June hearing or he didn’t. There was no in between.
IV. The NFL’s notes
In an effort to show that Rice misled the league, the NFL presented the testimony of Goodell and other league officials; who recalled that Rice, in an apparent attempt to minimize his prior assault, characterized his actions as “slap” instead of “hit”at the June 16 hearing. Further, the NFL presented testimony claiming Rice told the league that Mrs. Rice fell and “knocked herself out.”
In contrast, Rice – along with others in his camp – claimed that he told the NFL at the June 16 hearing, that he “hit” his wife, she went down, and “she hit her head.”
Without an official transcript of the June 16 hearing, Jones was left to consider the conflicting testimony. However, the dagger for the NFL was found in four sets of “contemporaneous notes,” including those of Goodell.
“Were I left with only the testimony of these witnesses, the question of what Rice reported on June 16 might be a closer one,” wrote Ms. Jones. “However an analysis of the testimony together with the notes made contemporaneously . . . leads me to conclude that Rice told the league that he ‘hit’ his wife and that he did not say that she ‘knocked herself out’.”
It was here, through bad note-taking, (or maybe too good of note-taking) that Rice won his appeal. There simply was no way to cut through the he said vs. he said.
Still, Ms. Jones seemed to relate to Goodell’s outrage and decision-making by writing, “I do not doubt that viewing of the video this September evoked horror in Commissioner Goodell as it did with the public.” However, Jones continued, “[b]ut this does not change the fact that Rice did not lie or mislead the NFL at the June 16 meeting.”
V. Arbitration for all?
For Goodell it was a rare slice of humble pie, because when it comes to disciplining players, he has unlimited power to unilaterally give out punishments and to designate who hears the appeals.
While the NFLPA would love to use the Rice decision to chip away at Goodell’s power by obtaining mandatory neutral arbitration for all appeals, Goodell’s handling of the Adrian Peterson suspension provides no indication that he is dialing his power down.
Plus, Rice’s case simply has very unique circumstances. A neutral arbitrator most likely handled Rice’s appeal only because of Goodell‘s involvement as a material witness in the case.
Finally, even if neutral arbitration were obtained in a given appeal, the outcome reached in Rice’s case would be very difficult to duplicate.
“[I]f this were a matter where the first discipline imposed was an indefinite suspension, an arbitrator would be hard pressed to find that the commissioner had abused his discretion,” wrote Ms. Jones. “But that is not the case before me.”
VI. Put Me in Coach
With his suspension overturned and all criminal matters resolved – Rice agreed in May to a pre-trial intervention agreement with prosecutors – Ray Rice is now eligible to sign with any of the 32 teams in the NFL.
However, the three-time Pro Bowler has several factors weighing against his triumphant return to the NFL. These include: sitting out the entire 2014 season, his play was in significant decline prior to the 2014 season, he will turn 28 in January, and he has suffered serious lower body injuries.
Not to mention, a team that signs Rice will face the accompanying media storm and public outcry that, like the second video, will follow Rice for the rest of his career.
Playing again in the NFL will be another mountain to climb for Ray Rice.
Hopefully, he took good notes.
(Featured image from Youtube/Croaker Queen)