Questions Unanswered as the Focus Shifts

Saturday September 20th, 2014

NEW YORK—The most important news conference of Roger Goodell’s eight-year reign as NFL commissioner, days overdue, lasted 44 minutes and was peppered with various forms of apology over the original light sentence in the Ray Rice case. Goodell used much of his time to emphasize that the league will work diligently to be a leader in fighting domestic violence—not just in the families of players and NFL families but for everyone affected by it in the country.

What still screams to be answered:

  • Why was the Rice sanction so light in the first place?
  • How is the league going to balance the due-process American legal rights of its players with the image fiasco of playing players who have been accused of beating women?
  • Who is going to handle discipline of these high-profile, screaming-headline stories, now that Goodell said today “all options are on the table’’ for reconstructing how the league punishes players?

But no sooner had the 17 TV trucks outside the New York Hilton driven away did the narrative of this story change. ESPN reported that Ravens director of security Darren Sanders had the contents of the most damaging Rice videotape—the one America saw via TMZ on Sept. 8—described to him by a police officer watching it. Sanders, ESPN reported, relayed the disturbing news to team executives (ESPN doesn’t say which ones). Later, Rice’s attorney told club president Dick Cass that the video was “horrible” and, according to ESPN, Cass responded by urging for Rice to enter a pre-trial diversion program—which indeed happened—that would prevent the video from being made public.

The focus shifts to Ozzie Newsome, Steve Bisciotti and the Baltimore Ravens. (Gail Burton/AP) The focus shifts to Ozzie Newsome, Steve Bisciotti and the Baltimore Ravens. (Gail Burton/AP)

Meanwhile, according to ESPN, the Ravens were arguing for leniency for Rice, and strongly urged commissioner Roger Goodell to give Rice a two-game suspension. That’s what Goodell did, and that led to this festering mess that has enveloped the NFL and made the league a target of outrage from a large, vocal segment of its fan base, and from women’s advocacy groups, who think he was way too soft on Rice for a crime as devastating as the one we’ve all now witnessed after TMZ unearthed (bought?) the video and made it public.

So now the focus of the story shifts to Baltimore, and to a league office trying to figure out how to fix the mess. In Baltimore, there is no question that owner Steve Bisciotti will have to make some changes in personnel if the basic tenets of the ESPN story check out. If Cass knew how horrible the Rice video was and didn’t tell his owner, he’s in trouble. If Cass knew how horrible the Rice video was and did tell his owner, they’re both in trouble—with Goodell. If Goodell learns two men he trusts, Cass and Bisciotti (and he has a very good relationship with both), argued vociferously for leniency for Rice while either one or the other knew Rice had knocked out his fiancée with a crushing left hook, Goodell rightfully will feel used. And he will probably consider the prospect of disciplining one or more of the Ravens executives over it.

The worst thing about the Ravens’ involvement, if the ESPN story is accurate, is that the organization has said it knew of the ugliness of the second videotape only when TMZ released it in September. If that’s not true, they’ll have a major problem with their fans, particularly female fans.

* * *

Goodell began his press conference with a statement in which he said the league was going to get its domestic violence policies right. To illustrate that, his new panel of experts brought in to address the issue—led by new league VP Anna Isaacson and league adviser Lisa Friel, the former head of sex-crime prosecution in the Manhattan district attorney’s office—sitting in the front row at the event, help in a ballroom at the New York Hilton Hotel.

LEAGUE DISCIPLINE & LEAGUE REALITY: A criminal defense lawyer on the NFL's incoherent and inconsistent Personal Conduct Policy.

Goodell said he and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith will meet next week with “experts to help us establish and live up to the standards that our fans deserve, and that we set for ourselves. I will be asking these experts to examine all current NFL policies related to employee and player conduct and discipline. They will address how to balance due-process rights for those accused with the need to hold our personnel to the highest standards. They should also consider the current system for determining violations, including my role in the process. There will be changes to our personal conduct policy. I know this will happen because we will make it happen. Nothing is off the table.”

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The toughest part of that, clearly, will be to establish rules for due process. Right now the 49ers letting allowing defensive end Ray McDonald to play while he is under investigation for allegedly assaulting his fiancée. Meanwhile, the Cardinals have put running back Jonathan Dwyer on the reserve-non-football injury list, effectively ending his season, after his arrest in connection with an alleged violent head-butting of his fiancée in July. Clearly the league needs to take hold of the due-process part of the discipline story, because they can’t have a player for one team having different rules than a player for another team. Goodell acknowledged several that times this is one of the biggest dilemmas facing the league. “We need to change our policies and our procedures and we need to get some help in identifying how to do that,” he said.

With the ESPN report Friday evening, the league will be drawn further into the morass of the Rice case at a time when they’d hoped to be focusing on the game on the field. The first Super Bowl rematch in 17 years, Denver at Seattle Sunday in the Pacific Northwest, should be the highlight of the league right now. But all anyone’s talking about is: Did Goodell and the Ravens know how bad the Rice attack was, and when did they know it if so? We’re a long way away from reaching the end of this story.

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