Bisciotti more candid than Goodell because he has less on the line

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In sharp contrast to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s tightly scripted responses to media questions last Friday, Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti on Monday offered stunningly blunt answers to how the team investigated Ray Rice’s domestic violence incident. Bisciotti delivered the press conference in response to a damning report released by Outside the Lines last Friday. OTL claimed that Ravens president Dick Cass was informed by Atlantic City police and Rice’s attorney, Michael Diamondstein, about graphic details of a video showing Rice punching his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer (now Janay Rice), at the Revel Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City on Feb. 15. OTL further charged that Ravens officials lobbied the NFL to impose a minimum suspension on Rice and designed a strategy to keep the video private.

Bisciotti’s press conference performance: a profile in relaxation while undermining Goodell’s leadership

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​The difference in style between Bisciotti and Goodell in their respective press conferences over the Rice scandal was telling. Goodell -- the son of the late U.S. Senator Charles Goodell -- wore a suit and tie, and spoke at a podium, much like a politician. He used carefully scripted phrases to respond to most questions. When presented with more difficult questions -- such as why the Associated Press reports the NFL had the elevator video since April and why the Atlantic City prosecutor’s office has no record of an NFL records request -- Goodell essentially punted, saying the “independent” investigation to be conducted by former FBI director Robert Mueller would look into the matter of inquiry. The commissioner never seemed comfortable, which was understandable given that his job may be on the line.

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Bisciotti adopted the opposite approach. He sat, and often sat back, during the entire press conference. He wore no tie. He seemed noticeably relaxed in spite of difficult questions. Bisciotti’s tone was conversational and fluid. He avoided repetition of talking points, a problem Goodell experienced during his press conference.

At times Bisciotti’s candor may have gone too far for the NFL and Goodell. Consider Bisciotti’s response to a question about whether Goodell furnished Bisciotti with a favor by only suspending Rice two games. Bisciotti implied that Goodell would do him favors, but not ones about “something that will be published nationally.” While the idea that a league commissioner would be willing to do “favors” for an individual owner isn’t surprising, remember that Goodell is about to be the subject of an internal investigation that could cost him his job. Now more than ever, Goodell would prefer that he be described as fair and neutral to all owners. After all, these are the same owners who could fire him.

Bisciotti also did Goodell no favors when expressing surprise that Goodell initially suspended Rice two games, rather than four or six games. Bisciotti’s remarks feed into critiques that Goodell doesn’t treat players’ domestic violence offenses with sufficient seriousness. He did, however, say that he doesn't question his confidence in Roger Goodell's leadership. "If I'm asking people to give me another shot, then I certainly would ask you to give the league office another shot."​

Why the NFL can’t realistically force Bisciotti out and the importance of pretrial discovery

Bisciotti’s relaxed demeanor also reflected the low stakes for him compared to those for Goodell. As an owner, Bisciotti answers to no one but himself. In theory, he also answers to other owners and Goodell. Both groups may be aggravated over Bisciotti's press conference statements. This is especially true when Bisciotti acknowledged failures on the part of the Ravens and when he portrayed the NFL as unable to develop a clear plan for addressing Rice. Bisciotti knows, however, the NFL will not force him out and is unlikely to punish the Ravens in any way. There are several reasons why, and they highlight relevant legal issues.

Goodell finally speaks, but he shows he still doesn't get it

For one, Goodell is implicated in the very same scandal as Bisciotti. This is a crucial difference from other recent scandals involving team owners. Take NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s relationship with Donald Sterling, whose insensitive remarks about race sparked a crisis for the NBA. Whereas Silver could recommend that NBA owners vote Sterling out as owner of the Los Angeles Clippers without Silver being compromised in any way, Goodell would have “unclean hands” in trying to force Bisciotti out. After all, Goodell is a central figure in the Rice scandal. Or consider NFL examples: when the New England Patriots were implicated in “Spygate” and when the New Orleans Saints were implicated in “Bountygate," neither Goodell nor the NFL was directly tied. It is a very different story with the Rice scandal.

Second, while the NFL constitution contains language that can be used to force an owner out, the odds of NFL owners employing such language against Bisciotti are decidedly remote. Owners know that the NFL would be in a precarious position should the Rice saga ever get before a judge. Bisciotti is also aware of that point. He knows that if there is any attempt by owners to force him to sell his team, he could file a lawsuit against the league. He certainly knows more about the NFL’s involvement in the Rice scandal than any other owner and knows the NFL’s weaknesses on that topic, too.

Third, if a potential lawsuit brought by Rice, Bisciotti or anyone else connected to the Rice scandal advanced to the pretrial discovery stage, NFL officials, including Goodell, would have to testify under oath. The NFL will go to great efforts to avoid litigating the Rice scandal and would likely seek a settlement with any plaintiffs. Along those lines, the stakes would be very different for Goodell should the Rice matter go to court. When Goodell speaks to the media, there is no risk of perjury. Similarly, Goodell will be under no risk of perjury when he answers questions as part of the Mueller investigation. The Mueller investigation can be more accurately described as an internal audit by a law firm hired by the NFL to protect its interests. Indeed, the odds that a report compiled by a law firm hired by the NFL would paint the NFL as breaking the law are virtually zero. In contrast, in a lawsuit brought against the NFL, there would be an adversarial party and Goodell would be asked questions under oath.

Rice has no viable legal claim against Ravens and Bisciotti

Bisciotti also benefits from the fact that Rice is unlikely to become a litigant in any case against the Ravens. Today’s press conference corroborated reports that Bisciotti and Rice are good friends. Bisciotti even went so far to say he would be open to hiring Rice as a Ravens employee. This was a rather stunning statement, given that Monday's press conference was fundamentally about how the Ravens and NFL responded to Rice punching Janay Rice in the face and dragging her out of the elevator. Bisciotti, of course, can hire whomever he wants, as he is the owner of the team. It is also revealing that Bisciotti expressed concern on Monday about false accusations of domestic violence against NFL players, and he warned that players must be “paranoid” when out in public. While these are legitimate worries, Bisciotti placed a surprising amount of emphasis on those issues when compared to his discussion of Rice’s actual misconduct. This all bodes well for Rice’s potential future employment with the Ravens.

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​It is also not clear under which areas of law Rice could successfully sue the Ravens. So long as the Ravens complied with their contractual obligations to Rice in releasing him, he has no viable claim for breach of contract. Even if the Ravens and Rice dispute the amount of money owed to him, the dispute would be heard in arbitration, not in court. Rice also seems unlikely to sue the Ravens for defamation, as there is no indication that the Ravens have made false and damaging statements about him. Quite the contrary, the Ravens have supported Rice with surprising zeal, and Bisciotti on Monday expressed interest in hiring Rice once his legal matters are resolved.

The most important video that, curiously, no one wanted

Like Goodell, Bisciotti expressed frustration that he was not able to see the entire video of Rice attacking Janay Rice until TMZ published it. Bisciotti rejected OTL’s accusation that the Ravens clearly knew about the contents of the complete video and that the team sought strategies to prevent public viewing. Bisciotti offered sorrow for not thinking of asking to see the tape, but said demanding the tape “never crossed [his] mind.” He also spoke of worries over interfering with law enforcement if he pursued evidence related to Rice.

While Bisciotti generally seemed forthcoming in his press conference, his explanation on the video falls far short of believability. The same holds true for Goodell, who has similarly portrayed getting the complete video as an insolvable riddle.

First, the Ravens or NFL merely requesting the video would not have interfered with law enforcement or Rice’s due process. Either the Ravens or NFL -- or, better yet, both -- could have made a records request to the relevant law enforcement agencies that may have had a copy of the tape. The request would have entailed simply drafting a one-page letter and mailing it. Law enforcement may have refused a records request on grounds that it is an active case, although that explanation would have been weaker once New Jersey Superior Court Judge Michael Donio sentenced Rice to an intervention program in May. Also, given the NFL’s supposedly deep contacts in law enforcement, odds seemed high that the NFL would have found a way of getting it from law enforcement.

If law enforcement still refused to provide the Ravens or NFL with the video, either could have demanded it from Diamondstein. Diamondstein clearly had the video, as prosecutors had to share it with him as part of pretrial discovery. If Diamondstein refused to let the Ravens or NFL watch it, the Ravens could have threatened to cut Rice and the NFL could have threatened to suspend him indefinitely until the video was provided. In other words, the Ravens and NFL had leverage over Diamondstein, but curiously declined to use it.

Neither Bisciotti nor Goodell is an attorney, and perhaps ways of trying to get the video genuinely did not cross their minds. Attorneys work for both of them, however. Not just any attorneys, but very talented ones. The notion that no one working for the Ravens or NFL was aware of any way to get the video is hard to believe. Their alleged ignorance makes it seem as if the Ravens and NFL adopted a “hear no evil, see no evil” approach to finding out what Rice really did. Whether the Mueller investigation or Rice's appeal, brought by the National Football League Players' Association, reveal new information remains to be seen. But so far, neither the Ravens nor the NFL has offered a convincing defense as to how they learned the details of Rice's brutal attack on Janay Rice and why they responded so slowly and so leniently. 

Michael McCann is a Massachusetts attorney and the founding director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law. He is also the distinguished visiting Hall of Fame Professor of Law at Mississippi College School of Law.