Rice, Peterson Cases Spotlight Tug-of-War Between NFL and Players Union

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterNovember 20, 2014

Bob Levey/Getty Images

Ray Rice was not a victim of NFL double jeopardy. Ray Rice committed a heinous, criminal act and has paid the price for it. Literally. Rice lost his job. He lost any chance at a paycheck for the foreseeable future. He lost any respect he had in the community. He lost a lot. And deservedly so. But he is not—repeat, not—a victim of double jeopardy.

He's a victim of triple jeopardy.

Having previously suspended him for two games, the NFL suspended Rice indefinitely on September 8, the same day the Baltimore Ravens cut him, despite team owner Steve Bisciotti going on record several times after the first video surfaced saying he would stand by the embattled running back.

Eight days after Rice was ousted from the NFL, the NFL Players Association filed a formal request for appeal on his behalf, suggesting that the league suspended the running back twice for the same offense. (Therein lies the double jeopardy claim.)

Where's the third jeopardy in this? It can be seen in this email Greg Aiello, the NFL's senior vice president of public relations, sent to me this week:

Ray Rice is a free agent who has been eligible to be signed by an NFL team since he was released by the Ravens in September. We said at that time that if he was signed the contract would not be approved until there was further direction from the league office. No one has signed him.

So Rice, suspended for two games, then suspended indefinitely, now cannot sign with a team during his appeal of that suspension, even though he is a free agent. Aiello's statement came when I asked the NFL's public relations staff to clarify Rice's current status in relation to Adrian Peterson's. Boy, did it.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 08:  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell holds a press conference on October 8, 2014 in New York City. Goodell addressed the media at the conclusion of the annual Fall league meeting in the wake of a string of high-profile incidents, inc
Andrew Burton/Getty Images

There was talk, most notably from NFL.com reporter Albert Breer, that if Peterson had won his arbitration case, he would be allowed back with the Minnesota Vikings as early as this week—with a chance he could have been welcomed back on the field while the appeal process was taking place.

That turned out not to be the case, under a ruling that keeps Peterson on the commissioner's exempt list that still befuddles the NFLPA. But when I asked the NFL to clarify that decision in comparison to Rice, I received an answer that seems somehow even more befuddling.

Again, Aiello states that Rice was a free agent after being released—permitted to sign with any team that wanted him—yet the league instructed teams that if any team was interested in actually doing that, it wouldn't approve the contract.

How is that not triple jeopardy?

I asked that question to George Atallah, assistant executive director of external affairs for the NFL Players Association, on The Morning B/Reakaway on Bleacher Report Radio (Sirius 93 XM208) Thursday morning.

"It certainly sounds that way," Atallah said in reply to my question about triple jeopardy. "We certainly feel a certain level of annoyance, if you will, with the way this situation has been handled.

"If we believe the league has taken a position that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement," he continued, "or violates [the players'] rights or—the big buzz word that I've seen thrown out there is 'collusion' after an owner went on a television program and said [Rice] is never going to play again in this league—all of those things are things we will pursue and look to protect the rights of the player, because they impact every player."

Whether you agree with the NFLPA defending someone who did what Rice did, it's impossible to take an unbiased look at the situation and think the league isn't fostering collusion between owners.

Though Atallah didn't name him, the Patriots' Robert Kraft was the owner in the quote above who went on CBS television the day after the Rice scandal broke and offered an opinion that sure sounded like the owners and league were all on the same page, ensuring Rice had no place in their club.

Aiello admitted, in that email to me, that the NFL told teams the league would not approve a contract, despite collectively bargained rules that state Rice should have been able to seek employment as a free agent while his case was under appeal.

Aug 28, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice (27) watches their game against the New Orleans Saints from the bench in the second quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

Remember, Rice was initially suspended two games and fined three game checks by Goodell after the first video came out. Then a second video was released, and he suspended Rice again, almost simultaneous to his release from the Ravens. Then, after clearing waivers, the league rendered him a free agent during his suspension. Only he wasn't free at all, given the league's open refusal to approve any contract offer he might sign.

Three strikes—and for more than 10 weeks, Rice has been out.

None of this is to suggest that any team would have snatched him up if the league granted approval. He's an unmitigated, untouchable public relations disaster for any team, even those in need of help at running back. Even now. Even after he gets reinstated and goes on an obligatory media tour of contrition. He's probably done in the NFL at this point.

This is merely to suggest that it's not about that. This is about due process and the idea that the league circumvents its own rules in the effort of garnering wins with the public. Or, as Atallah suggested Thursday, its sponsors.

So as much as this story might be about Rice or Peterson or Greg Hardy or Jonathan Dwyer or the host of players doing bad things that warrant the NFLPA to come to their defense, it's becoming more and more about the process of providing that defense and specifically the way in which the NFL—read: Goodell—goes about punishing players.

Atallah pointed out that there's a mistaken belief about Goodell's power in his role as commissioner, and it's the central point in the ongoing fight between the league and players.

"The personal conduct policy that we're operating under was in place in 2007, and the common misconception that's out there seems to be that the personal conduct policy in the collective bargaining agreement grants Roger Goodell the authority to do whatever he wants," Atallah said.

"That is not true…and that's why we fight when those things happen."

And with comments like that, Rice and Peterson are nothing more than pawns in a much bigger game. Atallah cautioned to remember the conduct policy is only a part of the collective bargaining agreement—he asked both me and Josh Zerkle on our show if we'd rather have 18 games or an updated conduct policy, one billion dollars for retired player benefits or a more fair conduct policy for the players.

Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

"It's collective bargaining."

Unless it's not. And that's what the NFLPA is so upset about with the Peterson ruling, and to a lesser extent, with the Rice situation. The league has made up its own rules since Goodell was in power, and everyone seemed pretty OK with that until now. Sure, the Bountygate situation weakened Goodell's authority upon appeal, but that was consistent with his message of overpunishment. Rice's situation was the first time Goodell was ever seen as being too lenient, and it's opened up a host of other situations he's proved ill-equipped to manage.

"It is an opportunity for us to go back and change it," Atallah said. "We do have to go back and take a hard look at what changes do need to happen in order for it to be more fair."

Does Rice really deserve a system that's more fair? Does Peterson? Honestly, probably not, but that's why players unions exist, and that's why the league, and Goodell, shouldn't be able to get away with what they have much longer.

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