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It's hard to accept, but Goodell did right thing with Rice suspension

It's hard to accept, but Goodell did right thing with Rice suspension Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP

So, you are Roger Goodell.

EDITOR’S NOTE: You are not actually Roger Goodell.

You just suspended Ray Rice for only two games for allegedly beating up his then-fiancée (now wife), Janay Palmer.

EDITOR’S NOTE: See first editor’s note.

Meanwhile, as others have pointed out, you routinely suspend players for four games for testing positive for Adderall. You suspended quarterback Terrelle Pryor for five games, on the bizarre grounds that he would have missed five college games for violations of NCAA rules that have nothing to do with the NFL, which is sort of like collecting the fines on library books Pryor failed to return in high school. You suspended linebacker Von Miller for six games for trying to cheat on a drug test, and you tried to suspend Scott Fujita for three games for the Saints’ bounty scandal, even though Fujita was later cleared of wrongdoing.

Yet you only suspended Rice, who allegedly knocked his fiancée out and dragged her out of an elevator in an Atlantic City Casino, for just two games.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Rice was not actually found guilty of anything.

Wait. WHAT?

Yes, it’s true: Ray Rice was not convicted. His case never even went to trial. He pleaded not guilty to a single count of third-degree aggravated assault and entered a diversionary pre-trial intervention program for first-time offenders.

This kind of fact tends to get lost in the modern media climate, especially on Twitter. We draw a line in the sand, jump to one side as quickly as possible, and scream that people on the other side are morons. The instinct is to say “HE BEAT UP A WOMAN AND ONLY GOT SUSPENDED TWO GAMES” and feel proud of ourselves. If anybody tries to dispute the point, or bring some nuance to the discussion, or (gasp!) understand both sides of the argument, that person gets shot down. In this case, that person is easily branded as supporting a domestic abuser.

But Rice was not found guilty. Does this mean Rice was innocent? Hardly. He admitted in a tearful press conference that “I failed miserably” and “me and Janay wish we could take back 30 seconds of our life,” and of course, there is that video online of him dragging her out of the elevator. His lawyers have said the video does not tell the full story. They may be right. But what it says is ugly.

And there was the disturbing scene in that tearful press conference in which Palmer said “I do deeply regret the role I played in the incident that night.” This led a lot of people to conclude she has taken on the role of the abused, blaming herself when she is not at fault.

Still: We have a justice system for a reason. It is not perfect, but it’s what we have. It is very possible that prosecutors thought Rice was guilty but did not think they could get a jury to convict him. (Rice and Palmer got married one day after he was indicted by a grand jury, allowing her to invoke spousal privilege and avoid testifying against him in a trial.) Nonetheless, this was the outcome of Rice’s journey through the justice system.

Now: If you were Roger Goodell, what would you do? Can you really suspend Rice for half a season or more based on what you think probably happened? Do you add a game because his fiancée’s comments at a press conference made you a little nauseous? Try putting this sentence in a press release:

We understand Ray pleaded not guilty, entered a program and the charges were dismissed, but that video on TMZ was just terrible.

No, you could not do that. And if you suspended Rice for much longer than two games, he could take you to court, and it’s not inconceivable that he would win. Rice has no known history of criminal behavior. He has never been in trouble with the league before. The NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy states:

“Unless the available facts clearly indicate egregious circumstances, significant bodily harm or risk to third parties, or an immediate and substantial risk to the integrity and reputation of the NFL, a first offense generally will not result in discipline until there has been a disposition of the proceeding (or until the investigation is complete in the case of noncriminal misconduct).”

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The available facts, while apparently damning, are limited.

So what did Goodell do? He suspended Rice for two games, the same suspension he levied on Ndamukong Suh when Suh stomped on Green Bay Packers lineman Evan Dietrich-Smith. The message seems to be: Beating a defenseless woman in a casino is the same as stomping on a player in pads during a game. But you can’t suspend a man just to send a message. If you look at the facts of the case, and the policy Goodell is supposed to follow, he didn’t have a lot of good options here.

Goodell arrived in office in 2006 as part commissioner, part sheriff, promising to clean up the league. His efforts have been mixed and strange, from the unfair (the Fujita suspension) to the absurd (Pryor’s suspension) to the justified. In recent years, he has become more measured in his discipline, possibly because former commissioner Paul Tagliabue overturned bounty-related suspensions, and maybe because he realizes this is not as simple as he once believed.

I understand why people are a little sick today, seeing Ray Rice suspended for only two games. Maybe Rice deserved worse, based on what he did -- but even today, we really don’t know what he did, and unless Palmer says what happened, we may never know. If I were Roger Goodell, I probably would do exactly what he did. I wouldn’t like it. But I would do it.

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