Raven’s Coach John Harbaugh Doesn’t Directly Contradict Assertion He Originally Pushed to Have Rice Cut


On Friday, among several other claims, ESPN reported that Baltimore Ravens’ head coach John Harbaugh, as well as head of player personnel George Kokinis, wanted to cut running back Rice back in February for his actions in a domestic violence incident.

Yesterday, the Ravens released a statement addressing multiple claims from the article, including the claim that Harbaugh and Kokinis originally wanted Rice cut,which Harbaugh seemed to contradict:

4. From the article: …the images (on the first videotape) horrified Ravens coach John Harbaugh, according to four sources inside and outside the organization. The Super Bowl-winning coach urged his bosses to release Rice immediately, especially if the team had evidence Rice had thrown a punch…But Harbaugh’s recommendation to cut the six-year veteran running back was quickly rejected by Ravens management: owner Bisciotti, team president Cass and GM Newsome.

John Harbaugh (Ravens coach): “I did not recommend cutting Ray Rice from the team after seeing the first videotape. I was very disturbed by that tape, and I told people that the facts should determine the consequences. When I saw the second
videotape, I immediately felt that we needed to release Ray.

Yet this statement doesn’t necessarily answer the question.

The outside the elevator footage doesn’t fully explain what happened inside the elevator. And although Harbaugh may have advocated doing so anyway, it would be presumptuous to assume otherwise and cut a player based upon that.

The way it is worded, its possible Harbaugh means not just the outside elevator footage, but all information he had during that time. But all his statement technically addressed is whether he argued for cutting Rice based upon that footage: not whether he actually argued for cutting Rice or not back in February for any reason, as the ESPN report alleges.

Thus his statement is ambiguous, and still leaves open the question. Which in turn suggests that either the wording was sloppy, or that the ESPN report was correct and Harbaugh does not want to acknowledge it.

Article 46 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the NFL and the NFL Player’s Association (NFLPA) precludes both the league and a team from disciplining a player for the same act:

Section 4. One Penalty: The Commissioner and a Club will not both discipline a player for the same act or conduct.  The Commissioner’s disciplinary action will preclude or supersede disciplinary action by any Club for the same act or conduct.

Although the action likely can not appear to run afoul of Section 4, a football team still has the discretion as to whether or not to bench or release a player if it simply doesn’t want to play them, or have them on the team, regardless of what disciplinary action the league takes. So if the Ravens had decided to release Rice, they likely could have.

But even if they were initially going to, or should have cut Rice if they were going to later when the video came out, or argued for lenient treatment by the league (as per the ESPN report) given Ray’s exemplary conduct and the statements of his fiance or not, the incident is not the mountain of a scandal it’s largely being made out to be. While the public may weigh in on any action taken or not taken, the NFL and its teams are not the court system or a punitive body; but essentially private employers whose discretionary role is to impart disciplinary action for conduct otherwise unrelated to the job as they see fit, in terms of the requirement of the employment.

Given the strong personal conduct policy agreed to by the NFL and the NFLPA, the image of “clean” football players the league has tried to project; the highly visible nature of NFL players; and the argument by some that NFL players are role models, and, although they shouldn’t, therefore influence illegal behavior among impressionable or morally bereft individuals by their off the field behavior (if so thereby raising not only the question of discipline for their off the field nature, but also the question of focused media attention upon it as well as its relevancy to do so), the NFL reasonably chooses to discipline its players for most off the field illegal behavior.

But an incident of a team and or the league appearing to badly botch the handling of a one time incident, however provocative, of a wild punch to an innocent person – here a female, no less, further offending the sensibilities of those many (myself included) who believe a person should never hit a woman regardless, and who abhor domestic violence of any kind – is still not an enormous scandal.

However, given the NFL’s popularity and image, and in its commissioner’s history of being somewhat high handed in his disciplinary decisions, it is a big story.  It is also relevant to and reflective upon the league. And Harbaugh’s statement was vague in terms of understanding just what happened initially. If he did advocate for Rice to be released back in February – unless just based upon seeing the outside elevator footage alone (though denied by Harbaugh as per above) – it would lend support to ESPN’s allegations that some of the team’s leaders had heard more apt descriptions of the directness and severity of the punch than initial reports indicated.

However, in another statement released as part of the Raven’s response yesterday, Harbaugh is much more specific, and contradicts the report and any insinuation that he had direct knowledge of the severe blow that in a verbal spat Rice had wildly delivered to this then fiance, in that elevator.

John Harbaugh: “Ray Rice never told me that he punched her. In June, when I spoke to ESPN The Magazine, it was still my understanding that Ray had not punched her and was acting defensively.”

Wow. If accurate, this also presumes that General Manger Ozzie Newsome never directly told Harbaugh otherwise; which, odd as this might seem at first blush, is somewhat consistent with ESPN’s report of Newsome as both parental and believing in second chances, as well Newsome’s statement in the Raven’s response that Rice told him “he hit her,” and that Newsome did not press for details.

But either Harbaugh is not being accurate, ESPN got it very wrong; sources that allege Rice was very forthcoming and detailed with the NFL in terms of what had happened inside the elevator have it wrong; or Rice was detailed with the NFL, and not the Ravens.

Or, when it came to this pillar of the community who had raised millions of dollars for children’s charities, who had named his daughter after the Raven’s team, who had a long standing relationship with his now wife dating back to college (and a friendship dating back to high school), and whose wife unconditionally supported him and seemingly all but pleaded for leniency (and as the victim, her say matters), and who several high up in the Raven’s organization viewed almost as family, Rice, since it was much earlier in the process than when he met with the NFL, was a little less direct with the Ravens, and the Ravens viewed the entire situation a bit more softly rather than “harshly,” and decided to let the court system (and the NFL, with or without please for leniency)handle it, rather than make a big to do themselves.

While this may have been a mistake  – and in hindsight was – under the facts as they existed at the time, it was probably at least within the realm of reason:

A team does not “have” to release a player for hitting his fiance, if the fiance herself begs for the team not to, there is every reason to indicate it was a first and one time incident, the player shows genuine contriteness, and immediately enters counseling, pending court resolution of the matter, which in this case was, in addition later favorable to the player as well. In fact a team does not have to release a player for any reason.

Given the huge miscarriages of justice that unfortunately go on daily, under these facts as laid out, this particular incident, while it looks bad, probably isn’t the enormous scandal it’s made out to be. Even with, weird as it looks, league commissioner Roger Goodell then only suspending Rice for a meager two games in July, then issuing an apology for “not getting it right”and issuing new NFL domestic violence policy guidelines in August, then suspending Rice indefinitely in September after the inside elevator footage procured by a celebrity sports news site, was publicly released, which in reality should have only illustrated what was already known, and not changed the situation.

Apart from the awful wrong doing by Rice himself (a separate issue and the underlying behavior, and only bringing up the broader league question in the first place), the only real “wrong doing” – as opposed to mistake, even multiple mistake – is apparently, whether in response Goodell has also been misleading about the entire affair.

Making and even acknowledging he has made mistakes is one thing. But as commissioner, misleading the public, for a league that works so hard to protect its image and does rely at least in part, or seems to want to cultivate, public goodwill, is more than a mistake.

Surprisingly, a report out very late Saturday night citing sources that alleged Goodell was given accurate and detailed information by Rice over the incident, didn’t get a huge amount of attention. The report suggests that Goodell not only mishandled this, but has misled over it as well. Just under two weeks ago, in an interview with CBS host Norah O’Donnell, Goodell stated:

When we met with Ray Rice and his representatives, it was ambiguous about what actually happened.

If Goodell was given a detailed and accurate account of the incident (which again, is only alleged by unnamed sources, which may be connected to Rice in his NFLPA grievance with the NFL), then there is nothing ambiguous about what happened, and the assertion otherwise by Goodell untenable, and in stark contrast with his “I didn’t get it right” apology from August. And should be a largewr issue. That is, Goodell making mistakes is one thing. Much of the public simply assuming (as we are apt to do, often incorrectly and cynically) that Goodell lied is also just one thing, no indication that he did.

But evidence that Goodell did dissemble over this as well, is another.

If accurate, it would reflect more poorly on the league than a simple botched handling of what was at heart still a discretionary suspension in the Rice case – and should reflect a lot more poorly. And under these facts, may, and probably should, cost Goodell his job.


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