Column: NFL, Roger Goodell repeatedly dropped the ball in Ray Rice case

Ray Rice pauses while speaking during a news conference at the Baltimore Ravens' practice facility in May. The NFL's handling of the Rice incident shows the league's apparent indifference to the seriousness of domestic violence.
(Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

It is sickening in its violence. A powerful athlete named Ray Rice throws a left-handed jab that knocks then-fiancee Janay Palmer into an elevator railing and sends her crumpling to the ground.

It is shocking in its callousness. Rice stares idly down at the unconscious woman as if she were nothing more than an irksome puddle, then drags her out of the elevator and drops her into a hallway as if she is a sack of garbage.

It is clear in its conclusion. Ray Rice is a man who should not be in the employ of any business that serves as a community symbol, public trust, and, oh yeah, represents America’s favorite pastime.


Yet, until a 7-month-old surveillance video was made public by TMZ on Monday, the NFL didn’t see this truth. Until the public wailed in fright, the Baltimore Ravens embraced their running back hero. Until the rest of the world went into shock, the NFL and Ravens essentially shrugged, and that is the real horror of this story.

Before the video appeared, Rice was scheduled to end his laughably short two-game domestic violence suspension Friday and return to the field. He won’t be coming back now. Within hours of the video’s release, while unbelievably claiming that they had never seen the tape until now, the Ravens cut Rice and the league suspended him indefinitely.

Too late. Too late for anybody to believe that the NFL and the Ravens really cared about anything other than keeping that monster in uniform. Maybe even too late for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. If a coverup is confirmed, he should lose the public’s faith, his owners’ good will, and ultimately his job.

For a group that loves to peddle its product to women — its online shop sells everything from purses to pajamas — Goodell’s NFL doesn’t seem quite so embracing of abused women. For a league that breaks out everything from pink cleats to pink mouthpieces during October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Goodell’s NFL doesn’t seem to have the same respect for the epidemic of domestic violence.

This latest video, and the scary notion that Goodell either discounted it or never even attempted to see it, is the second domestic violence strike against the commissioner in this same case.

After Rice was charged with aggravated assault last spring, then accepted into a pretrial diversion program that allowed him to avoid jail time, Goodell suspended him for two games. This amount was half of the suspension time given for most substance-abuse cases and general off-field conduct cases that did not involve arrests.

Even worse, the suspension seemed to mirror the lenient attitude of Rice’s team. The Ravens not only continued to accept Rice with open arms after the arrest, but also took the unprecedented step of staging an awkwardly sad news conference with Rice and Palmer, who had since become his wife. Not once during the news conference did Rice apologize for hitting her in the face, and later the Ravens organization sent out a tweet that read, “Janay Rice says she deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident.”

Amid all this smoke, the two-game suspension caught fire, and Goodell was pelted with such fervent criticism that he finally, publicly, admitted he was wrong. A month after the suspension, he instituted new league policy in which first-time domestic violence offenders would be suspended for six games without pay, and second offenders would be banned for life.

“I didn’t get it right,” wrote Goodell in a letter to team owners. “Simply put we have to do better. And we will.”

Few imagined then that Goodell would continue to get it so wrong. Because the new policy was not retroactive, Rice’s initial suspension stood, and he was ready to return to the team this week before the new video was released amid a new question that cuts to the heart of Goodell’s ability to continue serving as commissioner. Goodell’s office has an answer, but it’s not a very believable answer.

The question: How could he have only suspended Rice for two games after seeing that tape?

The answer: “That video was not made available to us and no one in our office has seen it until today,’’ said league spokesman Greg Aiello.

Seriously? Employees at Atlantic City’s now-shuttered Revel Casino, where the elevator punch occurred, have said that the tape was given to police, who were in contact with the league throughout the investigation. Several news reports from credible sources reported in July that the league had indeed seen the tape and, in fact, had handed down the suspension based on its contents, as if anything could mitigate an earlier released tape of Rice dragging Palmer out of the elevator.

Believe what you want. But even if their investigation had reached a dead end, it is impossible to believe the website TMZ can buy a tape that the billion-dollar NFL could not, or would not.

When Goodell replaced Paul Tagliabue as the NFL commissioner in the fall of 2006, he immediately became known as a hard-line disciplinarian. He suspended Michael Vick even after Vick had already spent 21 months in prison for dog-fighting crimes. He suspended Ben Roethlisberger simply for acting like a jerk. He issued a rash of suspensions, including banning New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton for a season, for his involvement in placing bounties on opposing players.

But somewhere, somehow, he decided to back off. Maybe he grew fearful of continually annoying owners who paid him about $44 million last season. Maybe, given the league’s great success, he began seeing himself as above scrutiny and beyond reproach.

Whatever happened, he made a decision on Rice that went against not only the sensibilities of the majority of his league’s fans, but surely also against the moral codes of many of his owners. If the NFL community can’t trust Goodell with their wives and daughters and girlfriends, who can they trust him with?

The big news Monday was that Ray Rice has finally paid for that punch with his career. But stick around. He might not be the only one.