Man in the Middle

Thursday October 2nd, 2014

The rewind button is now being pushed on the entire Ray Rice disciplinary matter from three different angles: 1) an NFL-commissioned investigation led by Robert Mueller, 2) an NFLPA-commissioned investigation led by Richard Craig Smith, and 3) Rice’s appeal of his indefinite suspension. Beyond the specific Ray Rice matter, these inquiries may well give us a clear (and public) look behind the curtain at operations at the highest levels of the NFL and one of its teams, the Baltimore Ravens. And at the heart of that intersection is someone still largely hidden from public view: Ravens president Dick Cass.

Team Structure

Before focusing on the Ravens, it’s important to note that every team has a different organizational flow chart, with the major differentiator being how involved senior leadership is in the football operations.

In my experience with the Packers—the one team without an owner (besides thousands of in-name-only Cheesehead owners)—the separation between the football and business sides of the organization was clear. Senior management on the administrative/business side, including the team president and executive committee, deferred all football autonomy to the general manager, making that position one of the most powerful in the NFL.

Generally, from an ownership level, most stay above the fray, with notable exceptions being Jerry Jones in Dallas and Mike Brown in Cincinnati. With purchase prices of NFL franchises now exceeding $1 billion, team owners have a wide portfolio of business interests and/or have little interest in immersing themselves into the grind of running the football aspects of a team. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti is clearly an example of such an owner.

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In his open and freewheeling remarks last week—which stood in stark contrast to Goodell’s guarded comments just days before—Bisciotti answered a question about the possibility of having his franchise revoked by saying, “If they force me to sell, then I guess I’ll sell. I don’t work that hard anyway."

Bisciotti puts his complete trust in Cass, who oversees all aspects of the operation and is the de facto “owner” of the Ravens. And Cass’s contacts serve Bisciotti well.

Long tentacles

As mentioned before, league officials and the 32 member clubs have multiple interactions and transactions throughout the year—the same as it is in all business models. Relationships are paramount; support from another owner (or the commissioner) carries implicit expectations of reciprocal support. Thus, the political capital of someone like Cass, with a résumé bursting with NFL connectedness at high-ranking levels, speaks volumes. Bisciotti’s comment in Cass’s biography on the team website says as much: “His relationships at the league office, and the respect he has earned around the league are significant assets for the franchise.”

Cass came to the Ravens after 31 years at the respected and influential Washington, D.C. law firm Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering (WCP), where he became a trusted advocate for NFL owners. He represented Jerry Jones on the purchasing side with the Cowboys and represented the estate of Jack Kent Cooke on the selling side, when Daniel Snyder bought the Washington franchise. Bisciotti then retained Cass to handle his acquisition of the Ravens, eventually bringing him on board as president of the Ravens in 2004.

WCP continues to circle the NFL from various angles. When docked a combined $46 million of salary cap room for how they handled contracts during the 2010 uncapped year, Jones and Snyder retained WCP—long after Cass had left—to represent them in an unsuccessful grievance brought against the NFL. And now WilmerHale (renamed after merging with the Boston-based firm Hale & Dorr) is the workplace of former FBI Director Robert Mueller, who has been tabbed to lead an independent investigation into the NFL and the Ravens. Although they did not overlap, Mueller is now investigating the actions of, among others, Cass, from an office where Cass had a three-decade presence. Quite the web has been woven.

What he knew

Cass, as a lawyer and senior official with the Ravens, was the point person dealing with player legal issues occurring outside team facilities. That is not uncommon; I had that role with the Packers and would suggest personal attorneys to players and agents when asked for my advice. The issue with Ray Rice is the content of those communications and whether Cass made any pleas for leniency within the legal system or the NFL’s disciplinary system.

The ESPN report detailing a timeline of events with the Ravens and Rice speak to communication between Rice’s attorney and Cass on resolving Rice’s case quickly and quietly. Cass, through a Ravens’ press release, refuted some of the accusations in ESPN’s report. In part, he said, “I did not ask Ray’s attorney for a copy of the video. I assumed the video would be terrible, because it would show a man striking a woman. As we have said, that was a mistake, and I regret it."

It’s hard not to wonder if those who know Cass might have felt an implicit obligation to be helpful. Cass is close with senior league officials. As with any business, there are times when relationships matter.

Bisciotti also admitted he could have obtained the video and did not. While emotion and personal feelings toward Rice may have clouded views on Rice, Cass’s role as team counsel and president is to be more detached in presenting Bisciotti options to consider.

As to Cass’s involvement in Rice’s legal strategy, he said: “I agreed with [Rice’s attorney] that pretrial intervention was in Ray’s best interest. Who wouldn’t? Of course, I did not want a criminal trial because of all the adverse publicity associated with a celebrity trial.”

It appears that at one point Cass and Rice’s attorney were on the same page with their strategy. However, judging from Bisciotti’s accusatory remarks about “Ray’s camp,” the relationship between Cass and Rice’s attorney seems to have soured. My sense is that when Cass spoke to “all the adverse publicity,” somewhere along the way Rice’s attorney felt the concern for adverse publicity was more about the Ravens than Rice.

Cass was present at training camp when Ray Rice learned of his original two-game suspension (AP) Cass was present at training camp when Rice learned of his original two-game suspension. (AP)

As to the possibility of Cass using his connectedness and close NFL relationships to benefit Rice, he was adamant that he did not. I will take Cass at his word, though it’s hard not to wonder if those who know him might have felt an implicit obligation to be helpful. Cass is close with senior league officials. As with any business, there are times when relationships matter; it’s hard not to think that this would have been one of those times.

Further, Cass’s presence (along with that of general manager Ozzie Newsome) at the all-important June 16 meeting between Rice and Goodell appears to be an action that spoke louder than any words. Although Cass said the team had accompanied players to meetings with Goodell in the past, he did not specify any of them by name, and my inquiries to the league have yet to yield a single example.

Among those watching the investigations with great interest are other team executives, some still scratching their heads over Cass and Newsome attending that meeting. Teams are forever paranoid about the NFL giving unequal treatment to certain franchises, and Baltimore is now the franchise of the moment as other teams keep raising eyebrows. A question I have heard often from executives around the league in recent weeks: Do you think Rice would have been treated the same had he shown up to meet Goodell without any support from the Ravens?

As much as the NFL and the Ravens want the Ray Rice disciplinary matter to fade into the background, it won’t. More chapters will be written about the Ravens’ unqualified support of Rice for months after the incident, only to cut him loose after the elevator video went viral.

And we may learn much more about the interlocking webs of influence around the NFL.

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