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Goodell admits fault, then ramps up NFL's domestic violence policy

Photo: David Goldman/AP

"I didn't get it right."

Those are commissioner Roger Goodell's own words from a letter sent to NFL owners Thursday, outlining a new policy on domestic violence cases in the wake of a controversial two-game suspension handed down by Goodell to Baltimore running back Ray Rice. In contrast to the league's substance abuse policy, there were no prior guidelines in place in the CBA for cases such as Rice's, leaving the NFL as judge and jury.

Now, according to Goodell's letter, a first offense for "violations of the Personal Conduct Policy regarding assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault that involve physical force" will be punishable with a six-game suspension; a second offense will bring a lifetime ban.

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"We allowed our standards to fall below where they should be and lost an important opportunity to emphasize our strong stance on a critical issue and the effective programs we have in place," Goodell wrote. "My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn't get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will. ...

"These steps are based on a clear, simple principle: domestic violence and sexual assault are wrong. They are illegal. They have no place in the NFL and are unacceptable in any way, under any circumstances. That has been and remains our policy."

An important additional note from Goodell: The new policy will apply to "all NFL personnel -- players and non-players".

There are questions regarding this policy that will need to be answered in the future, first and foremost being at what point the NFL would step in and hand down a punishment in a domestic violence case. Before any requisite trial? After all legal proceedings have concluded? Rice, for example, pleaded not guilty to his charges and then accepted a plea deal into an intervention program as permitted by law. Would his situation vary from that of someone like Greg Hardy, who was found guilty on two counts in a domestic violence case?

How will the union handle this new policy? The NFLPA released a statement shortly after the news was announced: “We were informed today of the NFL’s decision to increase penalties on domestic violence offenders under the Personal Conduct Policy for all NFL employees. As we do in all disciplinary matters, if we believe that players’ due process rights are infringed upon during the course of discipline, we will assert and defend our members’ rights.”​​

The players' association did agree to the substance abuse policies that as of Wednesday left Cleveland wide receiver Josh Gordon suspended for the next year. But if the NFLPA did not sign off on the league's new punishments, there could be pushback in the form of appeals down the road.

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It's worth mentioning here that Hardy is still awaiting any additional penalty from the league. Since his incident took place before Goodell enacted these sweeping changes, Hardy may have an argument that he should not be subject to the six-game ban, but Goodell's declaration that he erred in the Rice ruling points toward a harsher punishment.

All of this nitty-gritty pales in comparison to the most important takeaway from Thursday's announcement, which is that Goodell worked quickly to rectify a mistake made. Rice's two-game suspension will stick, as there is no going back and revisiting that situation in double-jeopardy fashion. Rather than simply move on, though, Goodell actually paid attention to the feedback thrown at him and made a conscious effort to improve the league's stance in the future.

He does not deserve much more than a pat on the back -- many people would argue the new line of penalties should have been in place long ago. Yet, Goodell has rarely felt the need to issue a mea culpa; he last did so in 2012, after the regular season opened with replacement officials.

This memo from Goodell to the owners is a positive step forward for the league, but there clearly remains work to be done. To wit: Goodell also announced that the NFL would provide "enhanced training for entering players through the Rookie Symposium and Rookie Success Program, as well as new programs designed for veteran players and other NFL personnel. All NFL personnel -- players and non-players -- will receive information about available league resources and local support and advocacy groups in their community."

One month ago, the discussion focused on how blind the NFL had been to an issue of the utmost importance. Goodell's letter does not fix past ills nor does it solve all the present problems.

But Goodell had to do something. And he did.

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