Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 30, 2014

Goodell’s Bad Year Just Keeps Getting Worse

It came as little surprise this week when arbitrator Barbara Jones overturned the indefinite suspension of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, imposed by Commissioner Roger Goodell in September. Jones, a former federal district court judge, heard Rice’s appeal in a two-day hearing earlier this month. While that the hearing was conducted behind closed doors there were as usual in these matters plenty of leaks; and based on the testimony that became public any number of legal observers predicted that Rice would prevail.

For anyone who has spent 2014 in a cave, Rice was charged with domestic assault for knocking out his fiancé in an elevator of an Atlantic City casino last February. After video of Rice dragging the unconscious body of his now-wife out of the elevator came to light, Rice met with Goodell for a disciplinary hearing in June. As a result of that proceeding the running back was suspended for two games, which prompted an immediate and widespread public outcry. Goodell eventually backtracked, admitting publicly that he had misjudged the seriousness of Rice’s offense, and announced tougher penalties for future domestic violence offenses. Then a second video became public. Shot inside the elevator, this showed the roundhouse punch that Rice used to send Janay Palmer (now Rice) to the floor. In the midst of renewed outrage from women’s groups, sportswriters, and the public in general, the Ravens cut ties with Rice and Goodell issued his indefinite suspension while also announcing a major effort to redefine the NFL’s personal conduct policy and the penalties for violating it.

While Goodell and the NFL’s marketing wizards may have steeled themselves for a negative decision from arbitrator Jones, it’s not clear that anything could have prepared them for the impact of the details of her ruling. In 17 pages Jones dismantles the league’s investigative efforts and Goodell’s assertion that the second video amounted to new evidence that allowed him to revisit the penalty he had already imposed.

It is important to understand that the arbitrator renders no judgment on just what an appropriate penalty for domestic violence should be. She does not find that an indefinite suspension is too harsh. To the contrary, toward the end of her decision Jones writes “If 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. But that is not the case before me.”

No the case before Jones was about what Goodell knew when he first imposed the two-game penalty. Jones’s answer is that he knew plenty, and that therefore subsequently changing the penalty amounted to double jeopardy for Rice. On the very first page of her decision she notes that prior to the initial meeting with Rice, the NFL “believed that there was a second video from a camera inside the elevator. Various sources, including NFL security, had reported its existence.” Jones goes on to note that Rice had received a copy of the second video as part of the discovery process in his criminal proceeding, but that “the NFL never asked Rice for the second video.”

But Jones’s review of the initial disciplinary meeting leads her to conclude that the NFL’s claim that the second video presented a “starkly different sequence of events” than what was described in June was without merit. She notes that the league and Goodell knew that “Rice struck Palmer, rendering her unconscious.” The NFL had the first video from the hallway, showing Palmer being dragged from the elevator. Jones also reveals that at the June hearing Rice demonstrated how he slugged his fiancé, “making it clear that his arm came across his body and hit her.” The arbitrator also cites the notes of Heather McPhee, an attorney for the NFL Players Association who attended the June hearing, which include the words “And then I hit her,” underlined for emphasis.

Goodell and the NFL’s other witnesses tried to convince Jones that Rice had lied at the June hearing, using words like “slapped” instead of “hit.” But she notes with obvious disdain that the testimony of the commissioner and other league representatives “is diminished by the vagueness of their recollections.”

Ultimately the arbitrator’s decision is clear-cut, “I find that Rice did not mislead the Commissioner.” Then in her strongest condemnation of the NFL’s longstanding policy of minimizing these types of incidents, Jones writes “Moreover any failure on the part of the League to understand the level of violence was not due to Rice’s description of the event, but to the inadequacy of words to convey the seriousness of domestic violence. That the League did not recognize the severity of the conduct without a visual record also speaks to their admitted failure in the past to sanction this type of conduct more severely.”

The good news for Roger Goodell is that he still has all the friends he needs. As he has bumbled his way through this case, making up new rules as he goes along and giving the NFL a massive public relations problem, the Commissioner has retained the strong support of all 32 franchise owners. Even Jones’s decision, which makes Goodell look hapless and inept at best and a liar at worst, is unlikely to cause any of the billionaires who own most of the teams to have second thoughts about his continued employment.

The bad news for Goodell is that the hits may just keep on coming. The appeal of the Vikings’ Adrian Peterson, suspended for at least the remainder of this season for beating his son with a switch, is up next. The Players Association wants any further changes to the NFL’s personal conduct policy to be collectively bargained. Waiting in the wings is a report from former FBI director Robert Mueller III, who is investigating what went wrong within the NFL offices in the Rice case. Normally one wouldn’t expect an investigation into the NFL that’s being paid for by the NFL to produce any startling revelations. But with the kind of year it’s been for Roger Goodell, the man once judged the most powerful in all of sports, one can’t be too sure.

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