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Lenient penalty for Ray Rice troubling proof of where NFL's priorities lie

When it comes to running afoul of the law and NFL rules, 'tis worse in the NFL's eyes to smoke some marijuana than it is to, say, allegedly knock your fiancée out cold and then drag her unconscious body from a casino elevator.

Message received, Roger Goodell. Loud and clear.

When it comes to running afoul of the law and NFL rules, 'tis worse -- far worse -- in the league's eyes to take some Adderall or smoke some marijuana than it is to, say, allegedly knock your fiancée out cold and then drag her unconscious body from a casino elevator.

Ravens running back Ray Rice will serve a two-game suspension to open 2014 (ESPN's John Clayton says no appeal is expected) for a rather sickening incident with his then-fiancée at an Atlantic City casino. Video from the casino's security cameras captured Rice pulling a limp Janay Palmer around by her arms, moments after it's believed he punched her. 

Rice apologized in May, at a bizarre and uncomfortable press conference hosted by the Ravens, that also featured Palmer saying sorry for "the role I played in the incident that night." The Ravens' own Twitter account even tweeted out that Palmer comment, highlighting it for the public, as if it wasn't bad enough that she felt it necessary to deliver a mea culpa in the first place.

Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh sounded borderline dismissive of the whole situation Thursday, after the NFL confirmed a two-game suspension and the loss of three games pay for Rice. 

"It's not a big deal," Harbaugh opened, hopefully in reference to Rice's impending absence for Weeks 1 and 2 and not the act itself, though it was difficult to tell. "It's just part of the process. We always said from the beginning that the circumstances would determine the consequences. There are consequences when you make a mistake like that.

"I stand behind Ray, he's a heck of a guy, he's done everything right since."

Is this really how the NFL deals with domestic violence?

Well, follow the leader.

Goodell -- who is quick to drop a four-game suspension hammer on any player testing positive for a banned substance and who shortly will hear an appeal from Browns WR Josh Gordon on a one-year ban for multiple marijuana-related offenses -- had a chance to put his foot down here. At the absolute bare minimum, he could have announced that disgusting acts like the one committed by Rice are at least as heinous in the league's eyes as taking drugs. 

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Instead, the lenient suspension for Rice did just the opposite. Want to break league rules? Just make sure there's a victim.

"The league is an entity that depends on integrity and in the confidence of the public and we simply cannot tolerate conduct that endangers others or reflects negatively on our game," Goodell said in a letter to Rice. "This is particularly true with respect to domestic violence and other forms of violence against women. ... I believe that you are sincere in your desire to learn from this matter and move forward toward a healthy relationship [with your wife] and successful career. I am now focused on your actions and expect you to demonstrate by those actions that you are prepared to fulfill those expectations.”

Still on the commissioner's plate this offseason is the case of Panthers DE Greg Hardy, who recently was found guilty on two counts: assault on a female and communicating threats. Rice, by contrast, pleaded not guilty and later was offered a plea bargain that included counseling. There is minimal evidence at this point, though, that Goodell will throw the book all that enthusiastically at Hardy. 

Rice is a first-time offender under the league's punishment criteria, so surely that fact came into play when his punishment was decided. The more a player breaks the rules, the stiffer the penalty, as is the case with Gordon and Justin Blackmon, who already is serving a minimum one-year ban (Blackmon was also arrested for marijuana possession Wednesday night).

But at some point, it's reasonable to ask that Goodell step outside the black-and-white league rules and approach his job with some semblance of a human element. The league's drug policy was put in place as part of the latest collective bargaining agreement, but Goodell has full authority on punishments for most other issues. Is taking Adderall really twice as egregious as knocking out your fiancée? Are multiple pot-related missteps worthy of a punishment 800 percent greater than what Rice is set to receive? 

Anyone with common sense, even Ravens fans hoping to get Rice back on the field, should answer no in both cases. 

"My goal is to earn back the trust of the people, especially the children, I let down because of this incident," Rice said in a statement Thursday. "I am a role model and I take that responsibility seriously. My actions going forward will show that."

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

Lest anyone forget, the NFL goes all out in October with its breast cancer awareness campaign, urging its players to wear pink and selling pink merchandise throughout the year in its shop. Never mind that reportedly fewer than 10 percent of the proceeds actually make it to supporting breast cancer research. How can the league, with even a shadow of a straight face, commit to that cause while at the same time all but ignoring Rice's transgression? 

This rather sickening situation offered Goodell an opportunity to put his foot down on domestic violence, really on violent acts of any kind off the field. He failed badly, either because he truly does not believe an incident like the one in which Rice was involved is as troublesome as banned-substance use or because he is outrageously tone deaf on this issue.

The needle sure seems to be pointing toward the latter case being true.