When you're a billionaire owner of a billion-dollar business, nobody tells you "no."
Especially not your employees.
Per a bombshell of an investigation by ESPN reporters Don Van Natta Jr. and Kevin Van Valkenburg, Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti thought his personal attachment to Ray Rice was more important than his team, the NFL, Janay Palmer or the law—and nobody had the guts to stand up to him.
In repeated acts of supreme arrogance, Bisciotti tried to cover up the truth about Rice's vicious assault of Palmer. On Bisciotti's apparent orders, many of his employees made fools of themselves defending Rice: Rice himself, head coach John Harbaugh and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Goodell, per the report, went against his own better judgement and the best interests of the league to go along with Bisciotti's plan.
The Ravens, for their part, have said the report contained "numerous errors, inaccuracies, false assumptions and, perhaps, misunderstandings."
But if there is even an element of truth to the reports of how they attempted to cover up the evidence against Rice, Bisciotti has to go and Goodell has to go along with him.
The Big Lie
Per the ESPN report, Ravens director of security Darren Sanders heard an explicit description of the in-elevator security footage from an Atlantic City police officer just hours after the attack, and relayed what he heard to Ravens executives.
If that's true, the Ravens have known for seven months exactly what Ray Rice did.
Rice should have been released right then. The ESPN report claims Harbaugh wanted to when TMZ uncovered the casino hallway footage, but general manager Ozzie Newsome, team president Dick Cass and Bisciotti overruled him. From then on, all the Ravens leaders circled the wagons around Rice, and everyone in the Ravens organization followed orders.
Infamously, they held a bizarre joint press conference for Rice and Palmer. Rice apologized to everyone except Palmer, and Palmer apologized for "the role that [she] played in the incident that night." The Ravens' official Twitter account's quotation of Palmer apologizing for "her role" in getting punched out has since been deleted.
After Goodell suspended Rice for two games, Harbaugh told reporters it was "not a big deal," and dubbed the running back's handling of it "good for kids" to learn from.
The Ravens' digital media team got in on the act, producing stories and video segments that lionized Rice and glamorized his return to the practice field:
Kami Mattioli @kmattio
This is a brand new echelon of PR delusion. RT @mattufford: Everything's great at baltimore ravens dot com http://t.co/VGIDbprFnE2014-7-29 17:31:08
Rice held a second, solo press conference, where he said all the right things—except when asked to provide specifics of what happened inside the elevator.
The team's senior vice president of public and community relations, Kevin Byrne, penned an official-site blog post called "I Like Ray Rice." It was an embarrassing, ill-advised attempt to win over the NFL world with what a great guy Rice is when he isn't busy punching women; today it reads like Byrne's professional epitaph.
Bisciotti gave Byrne a telling quote. "No one outside can understand how we look at these guys as our sons and close friends as opposed to just employees."
At the time, San Jose Mercury News columnist Tim Kawakami speculated that Bisciotti was the driving force behind not just the Ravens' PR blitz, but Rice's too-short punishment:
Tim Kawakami @timkawakami
On the Ravens' bizarre Ray Rice PR campaign... That has to be ownership-drive. Has to be. Clues into how Goodell bowed to Bisciotti, too.2014-7-29 17:52:10
If ESPN's report is correct, Kawakami was absolutely right.
The Ravens had heard a "play-by-play" description of the in-elevator video from an Atlantic City police officer. ESPN's Bob Ley reported the Ravens had a cell phone recording of the video, per Deadspin.com, which Ley later retracted.
According to Van Natta and Van Valkenburg, Cass heard an emphatic description of the video's contents from Rice's lawyer, Michael J. Diamondstein, who, unlike the Ravens, made the effort to acquire a copy. Diamondstein's account of the video evidence, then, was likely the second one Cass heard.
When Rice traveled to New York for his hearing with Goodell, the Ravens executives, per ESPN, assured Rice that Goodell had already seen the video, and encouraged him to tell the truth. Four sources, the ESPN report claims, confirm Cass and Newsome were in the room while Rice told Goodell he punched Palmer and knocked her out.
Why did the Ravens executives tell Rice that Goodell had seen the video? The Ravens told ESPN that was an "assumption," rather than a "belief," but The Associated Press reported a law enforcement official sent the tape to the NFL, and heard a voicemail of an NFL employee confirming its receipt.
Bisciotti, Cass and Newsome not only knew full well what was on that tape; they knew if it ever came out, that would be it for Ray Rice's job—and maybe theirs.
Instead of trying to confirm what they repeatedly heard by obtaining a copy of the tape, the Ravens tried to bury it, per ESPN:
After the Feb. 15 incident in the casino elevator, Ravens executives—in particular owner Steve Bisciotti, president Dick Cass and general manager Ozzie Newsome—began extensive public and private campaigns pushing for leniency for Rice on several fronts: from the judicial system in Atlantic County, where Rice faced assault charges, to commissioner Goodell, who ultimately would decide the number of games Rice would be suspended from this fall, to within their own building, where some were arguing immediately after the incident that Rice should be released.
The Ravens also consulted frequently with Rice's Philadelphia defense attorney, Michael J. Diamondstein, who in early April had obtained a copy of the inside-elevator video and told Cass: "It's f---ig horrible." Cass did not request a copy of the video from Diamondstein but instead began urging Rice's legal team to get Rice accepted into a pretrial intervention program after being told some of the program's benefits. Among them: It would keep the inside-elevator video from becoming public.
For its part, the NFL—which in other player discipline cases has been able to obtain information that's been sealed by court order—took an uncharacteristically passive approach when it came to gathering evidence, opening itself up to widespread criticism, allegations of inconsistent approaches to player discipline and questions about whether Goodell gave Rice— the corporate face of the Baltimore franchise—a light punishment as a favor to his good friend Bisciotti. Four sources said Ravens executives, including Bisciotti, Cass and Newsome, urged Goodell and other league executives to give Rice no more than a two-game suspension, and that's what Goodell did on July 24.
Here's where Bisciotti's arrogance undid him.
Instead of facing the truth, Bisciotti and his top advisors reportedly hatched a plan: convince Atlantic County prosecutors to give Rice a sweetheart plea deal, convince Goodell to go easy on Rice and convince the American public Rice is such a great guy that whatever he did couldn't have been all that bad, or all his fault.
Goodell caved. The authorities played ball. But everyone who could add two and two together knew Rice dragging Palmer's unconscious body out of that elevator meant he was guilty of something unforgivable.
When that video surfaced, as Goodell and Bisciotti should have known it eventually would, the lies were exposed and the scheme unraveled. In just a few hours, the Ravens went from Rice's biggest cheerleaders to withholding comment to releasing him outright.
Publicly, Bisciotti, Harbaugh and the Ravens pinned everything on Rice. They claimed they hadn't seen the video before, they found it "violent and horrifying" and it didn't match Rice's version of events. Seeing the video "changed everything," Bisciotti wrote in a letter to fans and sponsors, per The Baltimore Sun's Childs Walker.
In a way, that's true: The world seeing the video changed everything.
If the ESPN report is accurate—and the Ravens confirmed to ESPN that this part is—Bisciotti remained Rice's biggest fan. After firing Rice and blaming him for everything, Bisciotti sent him two texts wishing him well and offering him a job with the Ravens "when he's done with football."
Rice, per the story, was incredulous. How could Bisciotti throw him under the bus and expect him to come running back?
Because nobody ever tells Bisciotti no.
The NFL commissioner is supposed to be a person "of unquestioned integrity," per the NFL constitution and bylaws, and he has broad authority to punish anyone who engages in conduct "detrimental to the best interests of the League."
Goodell originally intended to suspend Rice six games, the report implied, but acquiesced to his golfing buddy's demands. (He would immediately grow to regret that decision, per the report, "confid[ing] to someone in his inner circle that he wasn't sure he had done the right thing.") This is not only a huge failure in judgement, it's an abrogation of his duties as commissioner.
Instead of disciplining Rice for conduct detrimental to the league, Goodell engaged in it himself.
As soon as Goodell announced the punishment, backlash was swift and strong. The commissioner soon admitted he "didn't get it right" in a letter he sent to all of the owners, as CBS News reported. There's a reason he admitted that in a letter to the owners, his employers, instead of a public statement: In doing his friend Bisciotti a favor, he'd made the entire league look bad.
As ESPN pointed out, it's not the first time Goodell's taken heat from some owners for playing favorites.
On September 19, Goodell held a shaky press conference. He started with a statement that he "got it wrong on several levels," but in his responses to questions, he again tap-danced around specifics of what he knew and when, repeatedly citing the NFL's ongoing internal investigation.
The text of Goodell's statement was contrite and well-crafted, but as ESPN's Jim Trotter pointed out, after nearly two weeks to react to a firestorm he spent months unwittingly setting, Goodell "essentially asked for more time." He was roundly savaged: by current players on Twitter, former players Mark Schlereth and Tedy Bruschi on the ESPN set and media members everywhere.
Goodell's integrity is in question. His ability to speak for the league is compromised. It's time for him to resign—and if he won't resign, be fired.
As for Bisciotti, his actions, and the actions his employees took at his behest, were absolutely detrimental to the league. Seeing how he pulled strings with Goodell to get a shorter suspension for his starting running back, and dragged the entire league through the mud in the process, it wouldn't be surprising if the other 31 owners don't want Bisciotti in their league anymore.
Just as NBA owners forced Donald Sterling to sell the Clippers, a supermajority of NFL owners could do the same to Bisciotti—if only there were a commissioner strong enough to stand up to him.