The NFL suffered a rare setback Friday when its far-reaching and high-profile suspension of Ray Rice was overturned, allowing the running back to return to the league immediately — if anyone will take him.
The league, which seldom has to backtrack on disciplinary decisions, agreed to reinstate Rice after arbitrator Barbara Jones, a former U.S. District Court judge, ruled the former Baltimore Ravens star had been penalized twice for knocking out his fiancee in an elevator at an Atlantic City casino.
Initially, Rice was suspended for two games, but when a second, more graphic, video of the incident was made public, the suspension was made indefinite. It was interpreted as a way for Commissioner Roger Goodell to demonstrate how serious the league was on inappropriate personal conduct.
Jones disagreed with the NFL's argument that the second video amounted to new evidence and was sufficient grounds for a new, tougher penalty.
"Because Rice did not mislead the commissioner and because there were no new facts on which the commissioner could base his increased suspension, I find that the imposition of the indefinite suspension was arbitrary," Jones wrote in her decision.
Rice, 27, who was released by the Ravens within hours of the video that showed him punching his then wife-to-be, Janay Palmer, becoming public, is now free to sign with any team.
However, it would be surprising for a team to sign him, not only because of the negative public fallout but because, at 27 and with declining numbers, he appears to be on the downside of his career.
"I'd be highly shocked if somebody signed him this year," said a personnel executive for an NFL team who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. "Next year when this blows over, potentially. He's kind of a scarlet letter. Owners don't want to deal with that. It's highly unlikely that he plays this year, and maybe never again."
Women's groups and advocates of victims of domestic violence expressed disappointment that Rice was cleared to return, although not necessarily surprised at the development.
"We're witnessing something very messy," said Patti Giggans, executive director of Peace Over Violence, a Los Angeles-based sexual assault, domestic violence and youth violence prevention center. "This is a function of many years of not having the right policies in place, many years of not taking domestic violence and sexual assault seriously in sports. We're witnessing the unraveling of a culture, and we're demanding a cleanup of that culture."
The NFL in September appointed Anna Isaacson to the newly formed job of vice president of social responsibility and named three outside consultants to help shape league policies on domestic violence and sexual assault. All four are women.
In recent weeks, the league has aired a number of public-service announcements as part of the "No More" campaign, starring current and former players and aimed at raising awareness of domestic violence issues.
"Judge Jones' ruling underscores the urgency of our work to develop and implement a clear, fair and comprehensive new personal conduct policy," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said in an emailed statement. "We expect this policy to be completed and announced in the weeks ahead. Our focus is on consistently enforcing an improved policy going forward."
In a statement issued Friday through the NFL Players Assn., Rice said he made "an inexcusable mistake and accept full responsibility for my actions" but did not mention playing again.
"I am thankful that there was a proper appeals process in place to address this issue," he said. "I will continue working hard to improve myself and be the best husband, father and friend, while giving back to my community and helping others to learn from my mistakes."
The NFLPA applauded Jones' ruling, which buttresses the union's belief that an independent arbitrator should make the ultimate decisions on discipline, and not Goodell.
"This decision is a victory for a disciplinary process that is fair and transparent," the NFLPA said in a written statement. "We take no pleasure in seeing a decision that confirms what we have been saying about this Commissioner's office acting arbitrarily."
The union said all that's left "is for NFL owners to embrace a fair process with a neutral arbitrator in all cases."
This is the third time in recent years that Goodell recused himself from hearing an appeal. He also did so in the case of Adrian Peterson, the Minnesota Vikings running back who struck his 4-year-old son with a tree switch, and in that of the New Orleans Saints, accused of paying their players to injure opponents.
One legal expert said that even though the Rice case does not establish precedent, it moves the league closer to a day when ultimate decisions on punishment are not made by the commissioner.
"The walls are beginning to tumble down on the commissioner hearing the final appeal," said Harvard law professor Peter Carfagna, former chief legal officer of media firm IMG. "It's like the Alamo, but they haven't climbed in and taken it yet."
How that impacts Goodell's overall authority, Carfagna said, is "in the eye of the beholder."
"The logical conclusion would be he now takes on the same role as the commissioners in the other three major sports leagues. So it's on the way, if you will, to weakening [Goodell's] ultimate authority. But on the other side of that coin, you'd say it's just bringing it back in line with what the other leagues have had in place."
Labor expert William B. Gould VI, former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, said the outcome of the Rice case "weakens the credibility" of Goodell in these matters and is likely to diminish his role in the punishment of players.
"From the beginning, I was amazed that this personal conduct policy was part of the commissioner's authority without union involvement. I always thought that was wrong," said Gould, a Stanford law professor. "This really does make the case in spades."