Yesterday, an arbitrator granted Ray Rice's appeal of his indefinite suspension, making him eligible to play in the National Football League again. Her written decision is a damning indictment of the way the NFL handles domestic violence. The league initially went easy on Rice, then reversed itself after a public outcry on the grounds that he'd misled them. But it turns out they were well-informed all along —they just didn't think pummeling a woman was worthy of serious punishment, and now the arbitrator is making them stick with that original call.
Rice, who played for the Baltimore Ravens, assaulted his then-girlfriend Janay Palmer (who is now his wife, Janay Rice), in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino in February 2014. He hit her so hard that she was knocked off her feet and hit her head on the elevator railing, leaving her unconscious. He then attempted to drag her out of the elevator, but dropped her when she was only part of the way out, leaving her legs blocking the elevator doors. Hotel security stopped Rice as he made another failed attempt to pick her up and drag her further.
Two different video cameras captured the incident. The first one filmed the assault and its aftermath from inside the elevator. The second captured only the aftermath of the assault, from the hallway. TMZ posted the hallway video several days after the assault. The NFL initially punished Rice by suspending him for two games, and fining him his salary from a third game. After the other video became public in September, however, the NFL revised that punishment, and suspended Rice indefinitely.
Rice appealed the suspension, arguing that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had abused his discretion by re-punishing him for the same offense. Yesterday's decision granted his appeal, finding that Goodell was fully aware of the facts of the assault at the time he imposed the initial 2-game ban, and was therefore barred from imposing the second, more severe punishment, under the NFL's collective bargaining agreement.
It is unfortunate that Rice will now be left with only a light punishment. However, the arbitration decision raises a much more serious concern: namely, that the NFL's defense arguments cast serious doubt on their ability to understand or respond to domestic violence.
The NFL claimed that the indefinite suspension was reasonable because Rice had misled the league about the nature of the assault, leaving them unaware of the gravity of the crime until the new video was released. But that's bullshit, and the arbitrator recognized it as such. The reason Rice wasn't given a more severe punishment in the first place is that the NFL didn't take the assault seriously enough. And the NFL's arguments during the arbitration make it clear that the same attitudes that led to Rice's initial light punishment are still alive and well within the league's management.
In the arbitration, the NFL claimed that Rice misled them by saying that he only "slapped" Palmer, and that she had "knocked herself out" on the railing, rather than that he had knocked her out. (The other witnesses to the disciplinary hearing deny that, and Rice claims that he not only used the word "hit," he also demonstrated to the Commissioner how he had swung his fist across his body during the assault, making its force clear.)
But the fact that the NFL made that argument suggests that they still don't understand domestic assault, or take it seriously enough. The idea that it is somehow morally superior to "slap" one's girlfriend than to "hit" her is bizarre, particularly in a situation in which the alleged "slap" knocked the victim unconscious.
Likewise, the suggestion that it would be different if Palmer "knocked herself out" on the railing is absurd. There was never any dispute as to the reason Palmer's head made contact with the railing: the force of the blow delivered by Rice. The theory that Palmer somehow became responsible for the situation in the split second between when Rice's hand hit her head and when her head hit the railing is ridiculous.
Moreover, the arbitrator found that the NFL knew about the second video, and had access to it, but did not watch it. NFL security was aware of the video. Ray Rice had a copy of the footage, but Goodell and the other members of the team who made the disciplinary decision never requested that he show it to them. Instead, they chose to rely on Rice's description of the events. So even if it is true that Rice misled them, the NFL had the means to view other evidence, and draw its own conclusions. That it decided not to do so suggests willful blindness to the assault, and a callous disregard for its seriousness.
But, most worrying of all, Goodell clearly believed that this was a reasonable approach to domestic violence, as evidence by the fact that he expected the arbitrator to accept the "just a slap, NBD" argument, and to accept his failure to watch the elevator video even though he had access to it. That raises questions about what will happen the next time an NFL player assaults his romantic partner. Will the NFL review all the available evidence, and understand the seriousness of what it shows? Or will it ignore evidence that could be damning, minimize the seriousness of the testimony it receives, and then hope the whole thing goes away?
Taken together, these revelations suggest that the NFL still has a lot to learn when it comes to domestic violence.
Read the full arbitration decision here: