Two Key Things Overlooked in the Ray Rice NFL Roger Goodell Brouhaha

An initial two game suspension, over a domestic violence incident, for then Baltimore running back Ray Rice handed down by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell this summer, led to a public outcry over its seeming leniency.

Subsequently, Goodell re-examined how the NFL had handled the issue, and issued a public apology, stating, “we didn’t get it right,” and took full responsibility for it.

Concomitant with that proclamation, Goodell also stated the NFL was toughening its domestic violence policy for any employees in the NFL. Under this new policy, a first time domestic violence offense would carry a six game suspension.  A second offense would carry a ban from the league, with the right to petition for reinstatement after a period of one year.

Less than two weeks ago, a TMZ procured video publicly emerged of the actual incident – showing what many thought we already knew – Rice hitting his then fiance sufficient to knock her down, hit her head, and cause her to temporarily lose consciousness as a result. But it also showed – or clarified – that the punch was not all half-hearted, but delivered in fairly brutal appearing fashion.

So, boom. The NFL, in response, argued that the video showed the facts to be not quite what the NFL thought or was led to believe, even despite the NFL’s apology only a few weeks before, and that therefore “suspending” the initial two game suspension and instituting a full six game NFL suspension for Rice, at least consistent with the NFL’s new domestic violence rules, was appropriate and warranted.

Except the NFL didn’t.

Within a matter of only a few hours after the video surfaced on TMZ on Monday, September 8, Ray’s team, the Baltimore Ravens, who assumedly should have known that Rice had hit his fiance on purpose, that she had fallen, hit her head, and was knocked out, acted as if the video was one of the more frightful and “new,” things ever seen, and immediately cut Rice from the team. (Although as that last link shows, head coach John Harbaugh, on the other hand, did appear generous in terms of the team’s, or at least Harbaugh’s, continued commitment toward otherwise being supportive of, and available for, Rice.)

Shortly after and again within a few hours total of the public release of the video, the NFL suspended Rice indefinitely. (Note, in the second draft of this article, I wrote “Goodell” instead of Rice. It was probably a Freudian slip. And perhaps a good idea.)

Why was not clear.  But, along with the Ravens’ actions, it made it seem as if the video conflicted tremendously with what had been known and thought.  Yet the video, while it may have added some information (though that is still not completely clear), showed what was generally thought to be already known. Rice hit her – hard, as it turns out, she fell, and knocked her head.

And, this response of the Ravens and the NFL made it seem as if the video was some sort of stunning revelation for the NFL. And therefore, and notwithstanding their subsequent apology over it and statement of domestic violence policy intensification as a result – it made the NFL’s initial handling of the matter appear completely out of sync with the NFL’s general illegal off the field activity guidelines and policies. And made the NFL and Goodell in particular, appear even more insensitive to the issue of domestic violence.

Thus, despite the initial, pre-video appearance apology, it made it seem like the NFL didn’t really pay attention to the matter initially, and that it treated or treats domestic violence like some sort of lesser issue.

In short, it made the NFL seem as if it had its hand caught in the cookie jar. Only it wasn’t cookies here, it was domestic violence, and the brutal image of an athletic running back lashing out and violently punching his fiance and immediately felling her to the ground; and then, in footage already seen months earlier, acting drunk and indifferent while trying to move her out of the elevator, until a hotel employee appeared and asked him to hold up.

And, in short, it was also one of the most ill advised moves the NFL could possibly have made. By the Ravens and the NFL engaging in this knee jerk, and rather severe fashion almost immediately upon the release of the video, it made it seem as if the NFL, despite issuing punishment even more severe than under its new, reasonably strong, domestic violence policy, was soft on domestic violence and trying to cover up for a mistake, as if it hadn’t already acknowledged that mistake – thereby undoing the commissioner’s initial forthcoming-ness and humble, candid, acknowledgement of said mistake, and also making it seem that the NFL didn’t know what it was doing.

The facts as to how and why the NFL handled this the way that it did are still not fully known – although as of just this afternoon, courtesy of an explosive new report by ESPN’s Outside the Lines, it has become more apparent that the Ravens played a large role in the initial mild handling of this by the NFL. Which in turn complicated the matter for the NFL. Which, in turn, from a PR standpoint, itself then handled the matter abysmally. That is, as the ESPN link suggests, the Ravens’ president was allegedly told that the video was “f***ing horrible” appearing, and other Raven personnel reportedly had the video described to them.

What is known is what happened:  Rice and his then Fiance Janay Palmer (now Janay Rice), both drunk – Janay apparently, and possibly both of them – very much so, walked into an elevator in an Atlantic City casino, in a spat. According to the AP, which was played a recording of the elevator security tape not made available to the public which included audio, they were cursing at each other. Inside the elevator, as the footage has clearly shown America, Janay, moving toward him, barely tapped Rice, just as she had several yards outside of the elevator – about as much of a threat as a kitten is to a Lion.

Rice then cold cocked her with one very swift punch, causing her to fall over. On the way down, she hit her head on the elevator railing, and in her inebriated state, apparently passed out.

Rice – as has already been well known since both the NFL and the public had seen this part of the footage months before the NFL issued its suspension – then awkwardly, and without much apparent concern, tried to move Janay out of the elevator, at which point a hotel employee approached him and apparently directed him to hold off. The employee also immediately stated, according to AP reports, “no police.”

Drunk or not, and regardless of what Janay said to Rice during the incident, the striking of her was despicable and unacceptable. Almost everyone agrees with this.

What it has turned into, however, is a verbal near lynching of the NFL and in particular it’s commissioner, Roger Goodell.

There are likely four specific reasons why: the power of image; the fast acting “story of the week” tendency in our current media and Internet age; the unsettling and emotional aspect of the troubling issue of domestic violence; and, last and most of all, the NFL’s, and in particular, Goodell’s handling of the matter.

Thus, in essence, a private citizen, engaging in a disturbing and almost brutal seeming one time punch of his fiance which was reviewed by the applicable court system and somewhat surprisingly deemed acceptable for Pretrial Intervention instead of a trial and possible sentencing, and who was initially suspended for two games as a result, and then ultimately suspended indefinitely while being simultaneously cut from his team, has turned into one of the largest sports scandals in years. And one which at least one or two otherwise reputable sources have otherwise called “possibly the biggest sports scandal of all time.”

But what’s the real scandal?

The NFL in part at least created this appearance of scandal, or at least its possibility if the media and public, then ran with it, by seemingly trivializing domestic violence in the public eye by initially handing out a two game suspension in contrast with the harsher suspensions the NFL often hands out for victim-less off the field incidents; then issuing an apology for doing so and then nevertheless still acting as if the video made public a little under two weeks ago – and which actually shows footage that the county prosecutor and judge, but not the public (nor, allegedly, the NFL) saw – somehow completely changed the facts of the case, rather than serve as a clarification of and possible augmentation to what basic evidence already existed.

The appearance of an NFL out of control was then, by sheer unlucky serendipity, made to appear much worse, when, in addition to two other pending domestic violence cases, perhaps its premier player at the same position Rice had played – running back – and a player who has been very active in children’s charities, was within days of the release of the Rice video suddenly charged with child abuse:  for using a tree branch, called a “switch,” to discipline his child to the point where the resulting wounds were alarming enough to lead the treating emergency room to call authorities for possible abuse.pictures, and pictures of which (in terrible places no less, likely caused by the child writhing and twisting to try to avoid the blows) were despicable.

This also raised the unsettling issue of child abuse, and, now that the issue of domestic violence was already in the forefront, added to the image of an NFL and (even though it was not the commissioner who beat his 4 year old with a switch),  a commissioner out of control. It also created a debate as to whether corporeal punishment is ever called for when disciplining children (a separate question as well from the issue of type, and degree). My answer is no – but if some parents feel differently, a one or two time slap on a soft spot on the body, never done in anger and with complete communication as to why, at least keeps the discussion within the bounds of reason.

With respect to the Ray Rice issue, which the timing of this unfortunate “domestic violence child abuse” incident only further magnified, all of the attention on the matter is good in terms of the negative attention being brought to the troubling issue of domestic violence (or, hopefully, violence of any kind).

It has not been so good for the NFL, Ray Rice, apparently his now wife, Janay Rice or NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

But in so heavily scapegoating the NFL, as well as Goodell, there are two very key factors being overlooked here: What the suspension ultimately should have been, and why.  And consideration of the actual victim in this matter; this is the person that was hit, not the public, not Goodell, not the NFL, and not Ray Rice.

This article is not a defense of Goodell.  In fact, subjectively, and based in part upon my own personal biases about the game, I personally have been in favor of replacing Goodell as commissioner for a long time. I believe that for many true fans of the game of football itself, and not just fans of watching teams score, Goodell’s continued and heavy emphasis on rule changes that favor the offense over the defense, and in particular wide receivers over defensive backs, has watered down the quality and balance of the game; that his heavy push for a playoff expansion would denigrate the current excellent weighted playoff bye system, dilute the value of the most important later season games and differences between teams and what they do in their divisions, and undermine perhaps the most brilliant overall playoff structure in all of sports; and that, ironically even given this Rice situation where he initially appeared to have been overly soft, that Goodell is morally high handed.

And now Goodell’s very poor, inconsistent, and, ironically, still seemingly morally high handed handling of the Ray Rice incident, is only another very strong reason why.

But as poorly as Goodell and the NFL have handled this matter, those two key factors just mentioned are being left out in our overall consideration and assessment on the issue and on the NFL and Goodell.  And for a better, fairer, more even handed assessment, they need to be considered.

The first is that the Ray Rice Janay Rice incident is a perfect example of a first time domestic violence offense. Rice hit his then fiance and now wife very hard, and alcohol is never an excuse. But alcohol can be a slightly mitigating factor, and with both of them fairly drunk, it is here.  It also likely played a large role in her getting knocked out.

One punch is enough to kill someone, and is never excusable, and in such an instance as this – it is reprehensible.  But Rice did only throw one punch. His prior record had been clean, even outstanding. His conduct afterward was extremely contrite and cooperative, and he did immediately start counseling, whether under advice of his attorney (almost assuredly), or not.

Additionally, the county court system that dealt with this, however “minor” it may have been relative to the types of even more awful and harm causing incidents that Atlantic Country Superior Court may be used to dealing with, did review all the evidence, including the aforementioned tape, and elected to forego prosecution in the matter.

The woman standing by Rice’s side after the incident was not, as far as the evidence goes, a victim of any prior domestic violence at his hands, but instead someone who has known him since high school, dated him since years ago in college, and who steadfastly tried to defend him.

In short, it is a perfect candidate for the new, standard, six game suspension under the new policy. (Note that this does not mean that Rice’s actions in terms of morality are = to a six game NFL suspension, since we do have a court system; but rather that the NFL, in additionally disciplining it’s players, takes the action of domestic violence serious enough so that even a one time, first incident, results in a suspension of over a third of the season, on top of whatever other punishment stems criminally from the illegal action.)

Yet the NFL – in a matter of hours, no less, making the video itself appear extreme in the public eye, again, suspended Rice indefinitely, while his team, the Baltimore Ravens, cut him.

This raises the unsettling question as to why.

Yet the first key factor of the two being overlooked, and regardless of how tortured the path of its arrival, is that Rice was not only suspended for an amount suggested or required under the new tougher guidelines, he was, essentially, suspended for more.

Rice should have been suspended for six games, which would have been in line with the policy, as well as a definite amount of games, and constituted a response that was not seemingly knee jerk, and, well, frankly, “all over the place” appearing.

But the Ravens cutting Rice as well on the same day – and also within hours – of the public appearance of the video, only made this haphazard reaction by the NFL more likely, since the Ravens strong reaction also made it seem as if there was a much larger gap between what was already known and what the video showed. And both actions in tandem- the Ravens and the NFL’s, after the video was released, made the NFL look even worse in terms of their initial handling of the matter, by again in tandem making it very strongly appear as if the video showed a remarkable new development of set of facts in the case.

The Ravens subsequent cutting of Rice upon public release of a video, is also highly questionable. It is awful, if, as reported by ESPN’s Outside the Lines Rice’s attorney actually told the Ravens back in April that, the video looked “F***ing horrible,” and if the Ravens head of security shared a detailed description of what happened inside the elevator with team officials, as also alleged. To be told this back then, and then cut Rice upon release of the video, seems in some ways unacceptable.

Outside the Lines reports that the “horrible” statement came from Rice’s attorney, Michael J. Diamondstein – who remember represents Rice, and is representing him now in his suit against the NFL for his handling of this matter – although the report does not disclose or make clear who the source of the allegation to Outside the Lines is; only revealing that Diamondstein was unavailable for comment.  The statement “looks f _ _ _ _ _ g horrible” depending on context, could also mean something very different, particularly coming from Rice’s own attorney – as if the video gives a very false impression, and unfairly makes Rice look bad. This might sound like a stretch to some in the public, but anyone who practices or has practiced law knows it to be relevant.

Additionally, the statement was reportedly made to Ravens president Dick Cass, and if so there is apparently no knowledge as to whether Cass shared that information with anybody. And judging by the countenance of John Harbaugh in that press conference linked to above, and knowing Harbaugh in terms of having studied the NFL for many years, if not intimately and personally, it is unlikely to have been shared with Harbuagh, or at least shared clearly, in terms of showing Rice engaging in the vile act that we now see it to have been.

The information offered in ESPN’s report also seems to strongly support this view as well. And it also renders Harbaugh’s actions, upon seeing the video, more consistent with his initial views on the matter. It does not however fully explain the NFL’s reaction.

It seems though, at least in part, that since Rice was an exemplary Raven and upstanding member of the community who had “raised millions” for sick children, the NFL was first pressured by the Ravens to make the suspension of Rice light, then was made to look bad when the Ravens, perhaps not wanting to believe that the punch was so direct or vicious looking, later cut Rice upon seeing, along with the public, the video.

But the NFL’s similarly knee jerk response only worsened matters, while the Ravens response is not the NFL’s fault. It is also interesting, and fairly important, that again, according to the ESPN article the Ravens – and apparently Harbaugh in particular – considered cutting Rice upon initial reports of the incident, but instead opted to back Rice. This put the NFL in a bad position when the video came to light.

In hindsight it is easy to say the video should have been procured. And if they were willing to cut Rice over throwing a drunken, direct and hard hitting punch to his drunken fiance, the Ravens should have procured it. (In an interview with Baltimore TV station WBAL last week, owner Steve Bisciotti cited specifically that as his largest regret.)

But the case for the NFL getting the video, in foresight – not hindsight – is weaker. The NFL and Goodell had the Ravens, seemingly reasonably, pushing for a light suspension of a guy who bled Baltimore purple, who had the city name tattooed on his forearms, who named his daughter after the team, and who, again, raised millions for sick kids.

The NFL, which is not necessarily supposed to sit in an appeal type of judgment over our court system, also had the relevant county superior court, which reviewed the very same video tape now so explosively in the forefront of this issue, declare Rice a candidate for Pretrial Intervention. And a prosecutor who would later not only make a fantastic point about how the outrage over domestic violence is great but that “reality is reality whether it is captured on video or not,” who also intimate knowledge of applicable courts, believed that while a conviction could be procured – and was unfair to put the victim through – there would only be probation sentenced in the matter.

As suggested here, the NFL did not really know what it was doing in this sensitive matter.  As a result, and despite issuing a harsher penalty than Rice should have gotten under its new, tougher policies, it made the NFL look extremely bad, as well as, ironically, somehow still appear soft on and somewhat insensitive to, domestic violence; by making it seem as if the NFL botched the handling of the Rice case initially even more than it did.

It has also helped make this into a much bigger issue than it needs to be, and helped feed our innate media and public desire for a sensational story.(And this one now has plenty of twists and turns and intrigue, drowning out the fact that at heart its just a simple voluntary employer suspension policy for unrelated illegal criminal behavior, albeit in a very public and tax exempt, venue.)

And it has hurt Rice (that is, in terms of the suspension he likely would have gotten under the new domestic violence policy, failing any pending grievance against the league over the matter), and more importantly his wife, who – foolish though many may judge her to be – has a right to stand by him, support him, and support his opportunity to play.

And which is the second key factor here:  The victim. Who apparently all but pleaded with the NFL to go easy on Ray; to give him a chance; and that (as foolish as such an argument is) it was partially her fault.

It’s never someone’s fault who is hit without said action being in clear self defense, in any situation, let alone a woman’s being hit by a man, and let alone a woman who is petite in relation to a powerful running back.

But Janay’s account of events, and her full support of Ray, is still relevant. Again, she is the victim here. Her say matters. The fact that battered or repeatedly abused women often sadly feel psychologically compelled to defend their abusers should not strip Janay, as the victim, of her basic rights and desires in this matter. Particularly given that there is apparently no prior evidence of abuse or violence. And also given that, improvidently or not, Rice was allowed into the Pretrial Intervention Prevention program and has an unblemished record before and since; a history of exemplary behavior; and Janay, so far as we know, a long and largely unblemished history with him.

Goodell was right to also try to take into account Janay’s wishes. Even if he was in error to listen to the Ravens (particularly in hindsight, when the team was later to cut Rice upon seeing the video, and apparently, according to the afore-linked ESPN report anyway, contemplated cutting him well prior to it), and even if he was in error for issuing such a seemingly insensitively short suspension for what was being labeled a domestic violence incident, which to the public at least appeared to involve alarming facts – Rice hit her, she fell as a result and was temporarily unconscious. And for which, and prior to the release of the video, Goodell acknowledged the mistake, and changed the league’s domestic violence policy as a result.

But Janay, as the victim, had some rights, and still has some rights, in this matter. And she deserves some say in it, which appears now to have possibly been shut out of the process, due to the way this affair has unfortunately evolved.

Yet Goodell likely was initially at least somewhat sensitive to and respectful of Janay’s strongly expressed wishes, as well.  And, without appearing to make excuses, he has intimated as much.  And perhaps, as suggested by the ESPN report, Goodell was sensitive to the Ravens expressed wishes, consistent with the victim’s herself, to go easy on Rice because this was a one time incident and Rice was extremely cooperative, and played a large and generous part of the NFL’s goodwill in Baltimore. (And again, this discipline by the league, two game or indefinite suspension, is not mandated, but is ultimately a voluntary policy on the part of an employer, even if sensible or even effective public relations on the part of the NFL and seemingly beneficial to society.)

But remember, Goodell also apologized for his initial handling of the matter before the video came out, and instituted a stronger league domestic violence program in response.

Yet Goodell’s second major mistake – the first being the initial two game suspension – being that he wound up altering the original suspension anyway, was not then adhering to this new policy in response to the release of the video. If Goodell could undo the initial two game suspension to change it to an indefinite one in response to the release of the “video evidence,” he could just as easily have instead instituted, or at least be guided, by, the new policy, as a means of finally “getting it right,” just as he stated in his apology just a few weeks earlier.

But again, the Ravens seemingly knee jerk reaction in cutting a player over a video tape that they were ostensibly originally informed about, after the video was made public – as if it provided some remarkably new evidence, and when they had originally asked for leniency on Rice with the league over the same matter – rendered Goodell’s similar knee jerk indefinite suspension mistake more likely.  And may have painted him into a corner a little bit, or at least partially explain his actions.

And both – the Ravens and the NFL through Goodell – are culpable here. But what they are culpable of is poor judgment, and poor handling, perhaps very poor handling, of this matter.

Nothing much worse. And though an interesting, and, in terms of the domestic violence incident involved, disturbing story that also involves the repeated bungling by an image conscious and sometimes over controlling appearing NFL and NFL commissioner – making it all the more newsworthy – it is not a scandal for the ages.

Yet perhaps it is time for Goodell to step down, or the owners to require him to do so. Or at least, please, Roger, read this piece, and don’t dilute the best playoff structure in all of sports; stop heavily favoring the offense and restore some balance, and stop seeming to make it all appear about image and money.

Also, perhaps, while some might disagree, stop being, or at least appearing to be, so morally high handed.

And if you give another press conference about this matter, don’t go on with even more moral high handedness, and vague statements, without addressing and answering the basic fundamental questions – why did you initially apologize if the NFL’s view of what occurred was so much softer than the video showed; and if it was not, why did you respond so severely to the release of the video. Also, acknowledge the specific mistakes made, and don’t try to be policeman for the world. Just hold players accountable as representatives of the NFL fairly – in particular for violent behavior, which has to become seen as universally unacceptable in an advanced society – and without sounding all high and mighty in the process.

It’s bad enough that much of society, sitting now in casual judgment of you, is already sounding the same.  Even if it is, indirectly at least, for a good cause. Which, instead of the NFL, should be getting more direct attention.

 

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2 thoughts on “Two Key Things Overlooked in the Ray Rice NFL Roger Goodell Brouhaha

  1. Pingback: America’s New Sport | NFL Football Strategy

  2. Pingback: Disturbing New Allegations Help Explain A Missing Piece to the Ray Rice Puzzle | NFL Football Strategy

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