OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Head bowed, Ray Rice went out to his first practice of his seventh NFL season Thursday morning. General manager Ozzie Newsome had just told him he’d be suspended for the first two games of the 2014 NFL season—important division games against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh at home—and Rice, still trying to digest the news, was reserved during the opening day of Ravens’ camp.
The Ravens caught a major break Thursday with the league’s announcement of a two-game suspension for Rice in the wake of his domestic-violence arrest last winter at an Atlantic City hotel. Rice, too, caught a break … except in the court of public opinion.
Rice and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who meted out the punishment (including docking Rice three game checks, or $529,000) got roasted in the wake of the sanctions, which is certainly light when compared to, say, recreational drug use. A third positive test for marijuana, for instance, nets a player a four-game suspension without pay. Compare Rice’s punishment to that for some potential performance-enhancers: A first positive test for Adderall is a four-game ban too.
But a physical confrontation with a woman in which the woman was knocked unconscious—in a league courting women as fans and consumers, and talking up the horrors of domestic violence—cost Rice half that time, and less of a fine. Thus the public outrage when the news broke at midday Thursday. When the incident happened last winter, hotel video surfaced that showed Rice dragging fiancée Janay Palmer, apparently unconscious, out of an elevator. And that’s the image America cannot get out of its mind.
This is why Goodell was softer on Rice than a four-game suspension:
- Rice’s wife, a source said, made a moving and apparently convincing case to Goodell during a June 16 hearing at Goodell’s office in Manhattan—attended by Rice, GM Ozzie Newsome, club president Dick Cass of Baltimore; and Goodell, Jeff Pash and Adolpho Birch of the league—that the incident in the hotel elevator was a one-time event, and nothing physical had happened in their relationship before or since. She urged Goodell, the source said, to not ruin Rice’s image and career with his sanctions.
- This was Rice’s first violation of any NFL policy—personal-conduct or substance-abuse—in his six-year NFL career.
- Rice was not convicted of a crime in conjunction with the incident, and the New Jersey prosecutor chose not to pursue a case against him last spring after he entered a pre-trial counseling program.
- Rice has been the Ravens’ leading player in volunteer work in the community. At the time of the assault, he led a Maryland anti-bullying campaign. At the Super Bowl last winter, he was part of an NFL player panel for a cable-TV anti-bullying show and spoke emotionally about needing to be vigilant on the subject.
- Rice admitted his mistake soon after the incident and went into counseling.
Still, there’s no guarantee—and Goodell knows it—that he made the right call. If Rice makes one mistake and assaults one woman the rest of his career, this decision will appear a colossal mistake by a commissioner who has been very tough in player discipline during his eight-year NFL tenure. And if Rice assaults another person while in the NFL, the wrath of Goodell likely will be unforgiving.
Janay Palmer reportedly made an impassioned plea to the NFL as it considered her husband's punishment. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
This has been a humbling experience for Rice, as it should be. He knows that no matter what precipitated the fight with Palmer, there’s never an excuse for laying his hands on a woman.
“Sometimes you need a wake-up call,” said a person with close ties to Rice, in the wake of the suspension. “That’s what this is for Ray. He’s a good person—people need to know that. But sometimes good people get off track. I can promise you this has gotten Ray back on track this off-season. He’s legitimately angry with himself for making this mistake. I know after it happened he was sick about it. Now he’s got to pay for it.”
Not that they compare, but Rice was already dealing with challenges in his football career. His 2013 season was a disaster. He weighed in too heavy for a 5-8 running back whose game was supposed to feature quickness, and his production plummeted. After averaging 4.7 and 4.4 yards per rush in 2011 and 2012, a heavier Rice crashed to 3.1 yards per rush and 660 yards total last year. It wasn’t all his fault, certainly. The offensive line was leaky and awful. But Rice was bothered tremendously about his production, and after some of his worst games, he’d text or call Ravens staffers asking them to review how he was playing.
The personal and professional crises, one Ravens’ source said, caused Rice to re-dedicate himself to football and his personal life this off-season—and to try to begin to repair his image. He’s gotten down to about 204 entering camp, his lowest weight since his rookie year, and new offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, who plans to make the Ravens more of a running team this year, thinks Rice can be the centerpiece of the running game.
Starting in Week 3, as it turns out. Whether Rice can be one of the NFL’s best multipurpose backs again this season—it was as recent as 2011 that he had 2,068 rushing and receiving yards—remains to be seen. He’ll be under the microscope, and rightfully so, more for what he does off the field than his offensive production in the coming months. A nervous league office will be watching his every step.