It took multiple tries for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to get the punishment right for former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. It turns out, even when Goodell finally got the punishment right, he got it right in the wrong way.
First, it took more than five months from the time Rice was arrested on assault charges — and nearly four months from when he was indicted on aggravated assault charges — for the NFL chief to hand down any sort of discipline.
And when he did — on July 24 (Rice was arrested Feb. 15 and indicted March 28) — the two-game suspension for Rice was woefully insufficient for the offense. Rice was suspended for two games after assaulting his fiancee and knocking her out in an elevator at an Atlantic City casino, while other players had received harsher sentences for marijuana use and using banned prescription medications.
Finally, on Sept. 8, Goodell changed Rice’s punishment to an indefinite suspension from the NFL after additional video footage surfaced that showed the security camera recording of Rice punching Janay Palmer (now Rice) and knocking her out in the Atlantic City elevator. What was more disturbing than the punch was that it took the horrific visual evidence — when league officials were already well aware of the assault — for the Baltimore Ravens and the NFL to hand down the appropriate punishment.
But while the punishment was apt, it wasn’t handed down appropriately. That was the conclusion late last month of the arbitrator who heard Rice’s appeal of the indefinite suspension. The arbitrator, former federal judge Barbara Jones, said the NFL couldn’t punish Rice twice for the same offense and overturned the indefinite suspension. Rice had already served his two-game suspension before the indefinite suspension was imposed.
In her decision, though, Jones affirmed that the indefinite suspension was the fitting punishment. “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,” she wrote. “But that is not the case before me.”
Jones’ ruling was less a judgment on Rice’s behavior and more an indictment of Goodell’s. What’s clear from the NFL commissioner’s actions is that only after substantial prodding and embarrassment did he wisen up and treat a domestic violence offense as seriously as he should have from the start. But by the time he was serious about it, he was too late to be effective.
It’s a mystery why Goodell is still in his job. There is no reason he should still be NFL commissioner. He has failed to carry out his job, and he has lost the trust needed to be an effective leader.
It’s important to note, however, that Goodell, the Ravens and the NFL weren’t the only entities to misstep in dealing with Rice’s grievous offense.
In early May, Rice rejected a plea deal that would have allowed him to serve a sentence of probation while completing an anger management program. Instead, Rice applied for and was accepted into a pretrial intervention program for first-time offenders. Under that arrangement, Rice must complete an anger management program and stay out of trouble for 12 months. If he follows the rules, the aggravated assault offense will be scrubbed from his record, according to ESPN.
That’s a sentence that shows the judicial system — and not just Goodell — didn’t take Rice’s offense sufficiently seriously. In fact, it shows that Rice might have received special treatment. ESPN reported in September that the pretrial intervention program to which Rice was accepted is typically reserved for those who committed nonviolent offenses and victimless crimes. Between 2010 and 2013 in New Jersey, the pretrial intervention program was the sentence of choice in less than 1 percent of domestic violence cases.
If there’s one lesson to take away from Rice’s successful appeal of his suspension from the NFL, it’s that domestic violence can’t be addressed haphazardly. It’s a grave offense that must be taken seriously from the start.