As Ray Rice began his formal appeal process in front of former federal judge Barbara S. Jones on Wednesday, the proceedings—and ultimately the resolution in this critical case—hinge on one key truth: what NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell knew, and when he knew it.
One of the most important decisions in the history of NFL—a crisis that has already changed the league's policies at their very core—comes down to who we (and Jones) believe between Rice and Goodell, based on the recollection of a conversation the two had in June with multiple witnesses, including Rice's wife, in the room at the time.
This appeal isn't about what Ray Rice did in that Atlantic City casino elevator in February. This arbitration hearing is 1,000 percent about what he said this past June and how, in any way, that was negligently ambiguous in the mind of the Commissioner.
To review the details of the case: Rice was arrested on February 15 for striking his then-fiancee, Janay, at the Revel Casino in New Jersey. The first video of Rice pulling her out of the elevator surfaced four days later.
On March 27, a grand jury formally charged Rice, an offense for which he was eventually offered pretrial intervention on May 20.
On July 24, more than two months after Rice was put into the intervention program, Goodell suspended the then-Ravens running back for two games, including a fine that took away a third game check as well.
And then the world ended. Everyone was up in arms about how light the penalty was, given the video we saw. How could a player knock a woman out cold and only get two games from the hard-line commissioner of the NFL? How is that possible?
A month later—month!—Goodell announced that the NFL (read: he) "didn't get it right" and vowed to get it right from that point on. Eleven days after that, the second video was released by TMZ, with graphic images from inside the elevator we can't unsee.
And then the world really ended.
Rice was cut by the Ravens later that day despite team owner Steve Bisciotti previously stating on the team's website that Rice would be back with the Ravens after his suspension. This, which is still live on BaltimoreRavens.com, is from March 24:
Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh and General Manager Ozzie Newsome have said they plan on having Rice as part of the team next season.
While there is reportedly more video of the incident, Bisciotti echoed their sentiments.
"He’ll be back with the team. He’ll definitely be back," Bisciotti said.
Bisciotti said he’s talked to Rice a couple of times about the incident and that they can’t change what happened in the past. But Bisciotti is more concerned with what happens in the future.
What happened in the future was that he cut Rice for the very offense he was on record stating he would not, another point Rice is bringing up during his arbitration, and a decision he is seeking restitution for as well.
Just read the pull-out and think how ridiculous this situation is. In March, the Ravens' own website publicly used the report of "more video of the incident" as a qualifier when quoting the team's owner stating that Rice would not be cut, and then after the second video came out, Rice was let go that very day.
Like Goodell, Bisciotti came under fire from the media for the way his team handled the situation, and in a fireside-chat-like press conference with local and national media, Bisciotti admitted he had no interest in seeing the tape, which is why his team made little effort in procuring it. He left that to the NFL, because the owners always leave this kind of thing to the NFL.
In his tenure as commissioner, Goodell has become the owners' personal hit man, making himself judge, jury and executioner for anything involving NFL players. This week, sitting in front of an actual judge, Goodell may have to face his own future, as questions linger if a result against the commissioner might lead to his own execution.
It cannot be forgotten that Goodell has a background in public relations, not—as one might expect from a commissioner with such power—the law. It is befuddling, then, how Goodell and his doctors of NFL spin have been so blindly misguided in the handling of this scandal. None of this should have happened, and all of it stems from Goodell's mismanagement in his role as commissioner.
It seems, then, that Goodell is more on trial than Rice.
Rice has nothing left to lose at this point, already suspended indefinitely and looking at an enormous public-relations rehabilitation project of his own before any team in the league would even think about signing him. Goodell, on the other hand, has everything to lose, and that may explain why the commissioner initially refused to testify before Jones compelled him to do so.
It's unfair to suggest that Goodell's job is on the line—if he was going to lose that, the owners would have done it already, right?—but it could be, especially if Jones finds that Goodell has been lying about what the NFL did or didn't know throughout the case.
Remember, it was widely reported that a second tape from inside the elevator existed, and Goodell still decided to punish Rice for just two games without seeing that tape. When the new footage became public, Goodell swiftly suspended Rice again, this time indefinitely, which Rice and the NFL Players Association claim is being punished for the same crime twice.
Because it is.
And yet Goodell did so, fully expecting everyone to just be OK with that. And when they weren't—the NFLPA has an unfortunate nature about being sticklers for collectively bargained rules—the NFL commissioner doubled-down on the double-talk.
In a Friday afternoon press conference for the ages, Goodell skirted issue after issue and dodged question after question while claiming to be offering greater transparency in both the Rice case and his role as the face of the NFL.
When asked if he had met with Robert Mueller, the former FBI director the NFL hired to conduct a supposedly independent investigation, Goodell couldn’t even answer that, simply stating that the reporter would have to ask Mueller himself.
When asked about why Rice was suspended twice for the same offense, Goodell stayed on message, saying Rice's replies were "ambiguous about what actually happened."
Rice claims he was not ambiguous. Others in the room, including Ozzie Newsome, claim Rice was not ambiguous. This is a story, still on NFL.com from September 10, with the headline "Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome: Ray Rice didn't lie to me."
"What we saw on the video was what Ray said," Newsome said. "Ray didn't lie to me. He didn't lie to me."
And yet here we are, on November 5, wondering who is telling the truth between a man who hit his wife in the face and knocked her out and a man who runs the most powerful sports organization in the country.
This is actually happening, and it's Goodell's fault.
To be clear, what happened in that elevator was Rice's fault and only Rice's fault. He has accepted responsibility for that and is reportedly working to rehabilitate his life, along with his football career. But what's happened since July 24 unequivocally falls on Goodell.
Even if you believe Goodell when he has (repeatedly) stated that no one in the NFL offices saw the tape of Rice in that Revel elevator before TMZ released it—even after The Associated Press reported that a tape was sent from an anonymous law enforcement official to Jeffery Miller, the NFL head of security—it's nearly impossible to believe Goodell when he claims the NFL was unable to obtain the video, despite exhaustive efforts to do so. (To be honest, they weren't all that exhaustive after all.) Here are comments from Goodell in The Baltimore Sun on September 10:
We did not ask the Atlantic City casino directly for the video. Again, our understanding of New Jersey law is that the casino is prohibited from turning over material to a third party during a law enforcement proceeding, and that doing so would have subjected individuals to prosecution for interference with a criminal investigation.
OK, stop. Goodell said back in September that the NFL never got the tape TMZ was able to buy because they didn't want anyone at Revel to get in trouble. Instead, they suspended Rice without full evidence they knew existed, waiting to suspend him a second time when that evidence was made public by the media. Goodell wanted us to believe they were more concerned with saving a security guard's potential prosecution (which by the way is a total crock of nonsense) than one of his own players.
Now that we have that clear, continue…
Moreover, our longstanding policy in matters like this – where there is a criminal investigation being directed by law enforcement and prosecutors – is to cooperate with law enforcement and take no action to interfere with the criminal justice system. In addition, in the context of an ongoing criminal investigation, information obtained outside of law enforcement that has not been tested by prosecutors or by the court system is not necessarily a reliable basis for imposing league discipline.
OK, stop again. Just…stop.
At the risk of going down a Bill Simmonsian path and calling Goodell a liar, I'll hedge to point out that his September explanation of events is, at best, an erroneous untruth.
While it is the NFL's policy to not interfere with legal matters—Goodell routinely renders decisions on player discipline wholly independent of legal adjudications—his comment about interfering with the criminal justice system in this case was just patently…wrong.
Yes, as part of the pretrial intervention program technically Rice's case remains open and pending, giving the prosecutor the ability to pull back the deal and proceed with charges in the event Rice fails to live up to his end of the agreement. That said, once the terms were agreed upon by Rice's attorney and the prosecutor, the situation was in no way an ongoing criminal investigation. The investigation, remember, happened in February, with a grand jury being convened in March. The pretrial intervention agreement was in May, and Goodell didn't suspend Rice until July, making the "investigation" hardly ongoing.
You can say that is just arguing semantics, but that's precisely what this entire case is about.
Goodell suspended Rice for what he says were ambiguous remarks. In other words…semantics.
Why a closed fist or open hand that knocked out a woman would matter to Goodell, or anyone, is something the commissioner has yet to explain, and hopefully, Jones will find a way to compel Goodell to answer.
Even if Rice was ambiguous, which Goodell may have an impossible time trying to prove, that doesn't excuse the fact that it was Goodell's responsibility to conduct a proper investigation into the situation before suspending Rice the first time.
"Hey did you smoke weed?"
"I did not inhale."
"We hear there is a tape of you smoking out of a six-foot bong, but it's kind of hard to get, so we'll take your word for it…"
Would that happen in Goodell's office? So why did this?
Ambiguous? The more we heard that the last two months, the more this nonsense created more questions about the conduct of Goodell than of Rice.
Goodell has no one to blame for that but himself, and if Jones rules in favor of Rice, it's only going to get worse for the commish after this.
How can anyone expect him to impartially render judgment on anything involving player discipline in the future? He's already come out suggesting changes to how the league office will handle future issues regarding domestic violence. He's already talked about taking some of his own power away. But if it's proven that he misled the public, covered up for underlings who had seen the Rice video or, worse yet, lied about seeing it himself, it might be over for Goodell.
We don't need the Mueller Report—take your time on that, by the way...sheesh—to tell us the Commissioner knows more than what he has said. Now it's a matter of finding out what he knew, when he knew it, and even if he is telling the truth, how he'll be able to do his job moving forward.
And if he's been lying, how that will even be possible.