The Soapbox: Blame Roger Goodell For Ray Rice’s Return To The NFL

Ray Rice is now allowed to play football in the NFL should anyone choose to have him. And if you, like me, are wondering where exactly to direct your outrage, look squarely at Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL.

For nearly 10 months, we’ve watched Goodell bungle Rice’s suspension and appeal. In August he admitted he “didn’t get it right” when it came to handling the case. On Friday we got to see Goodell fumble the ball again, this time in slow motion, when ex-U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones released a scathing 17-page report on how the NFL handled the Rice debacle. In one fell swoop, Jones lifted Rice’s indefinite ban from the NFL and allowed him to sign as a free agent.

According to Jones’ report, when Rice explained to Goodell and the NFL what happened in the elevator of an Atlantic City Casino during his disciplinary hearing in June, he described the scene shown in the security camera video. That video was available to the NFL, they just never asked to see it.

Jones says Rice’s testimony of the events at the hearing should have been enough to issue the indefinite suspension. The league should have issued it then, but it didn’t take the assault seriously enough.

Goodell knew how awful the attack on Janay Rice was after listening to Rice describe it. But apparently that wasn’t good enough for the commissioner, he needed to see Janay Rice get knocked unconscious with his own eyes to issue more than a slap on the wrist.

“That the League did not realize the severity of the conduct without a visual record … speaks to their admitted failure in the past to sanction this type of conduct more severely,” says Jones. “[A]ny 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.”

In theory, the NFL commissioner can dole out whatever punishment he deems fit without having to consult anyone or anything. In practice, he relies on input from team owners, coaches and GMs (all of whom have a vested interest in keeping players on the field) about what punishment to issue. He also seeks out precedents, none of which, according to testimony and records from the Rice case, show a player ever being suspended for more than two games under Goodell.

According to the NFL’s VP/Labor Policy & Government Affairs Adolpho Birch, a two-game suspension is a big deal. But even Goodell has since admitted the punishment lacked teeth and has since adjusted the league’s policy for minimum suspensions.

Even with the new policy (yet to be tested), the problem with the NFL’s stance on domestic violence is bigger and more insidious than it seems and often results in teams turning their back on victims. The league’s lackadaisical, sporadic and (frankly) underwhelming discipline policies simply aren’t good enough.

When the NFL failed to punish Ray Rice with the indefinite suspension at his first discipline meeting, it was because the NFL either misunderstood or willfully ignored the severity of the events Rice described. The NFL has a systemic problem when it comes to how they punish players accused of domestic violence. It continuously allows players back into its ranks after domestic abuse has been proven.

When we allow the NFL to reinstate perpetrators of domestic violence back into the league, we tell women their voices aren’t important. We make it harder for all women to feel safe coming forward as victims of domestic violence. Further, when we allow the NFL to do this, we tell boys and young men who look up to pro-athletes as role models that physically assaulting your girlfriend or wife is okay.

The NFL seems more than happy to try and minimize the seriousness of its players’ crimes and hide behind a veil of ignorance. The only way the NFL will show us they understand the severity of intimate partner violence is when they implement and enforce a zero-tolerance policy for domestic abuse. Until then, its policies are just smoke and mirrors.