As Ray Rice controversy rages on, even some within NFL believe league erred with punishment


NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has received widespread criticism for his handling of the Ray Rice case. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

The NFL’s decision to suspend Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for two games for a domestic violence incident involving his now-wife has focused sharp criticism on the league and Commissioner Roger Goodell for a penalty that many considered too lenient.

While the league has defended its action and there is a measure of support for it within the NFL, particularly inside the Ravens organization, some of those in and around the sport say the public outcry over the issue is understandable and meaningful.

Opinion was divided among high-ranking officials from several NFL teams contacted this week, although it was mostly weighted toward questioning the penalty. One said he initially thought the punishment was too light but came to believe there is a measure of validity to the league’s stance that Rice was a first-time offender and the NFL had done far more to punish Rice, with a penalty that will cost him more than $500,000, than the criminal justice system did.

But several others said they  believe the suspension should have been longer and the league, in their view, underestimated the public reaction its penalty would generate.

“They miscalculated that,” said an executive with one team who, like the others, spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the intensity of the controversy surrounding the decision and the fact that Rice plays for another franchise. “They could not have expected this level of reaction. To me, this was mishandled. More needed to be done and a stronger message needed to be sent.”

The NFL Players Association did not respond to a request for comment.

“The NFL has grown to the point where it’s almost held in the trust of the public,” said David Cornwell, an attorney who has represented many NFL players and formerly was a candidate for executive director of the players’ union. “That creates a number of challenges. In this case, it illustrates that the public wanted the NFL to say in no uncertain terms that violence against women is unacceptable. But the challenge is that you can’t ignore the precedents of your own past disciplinary actions.”

Cornwell represented Ben Roethlisberger when the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback was suspended for six games by Goodell in 2010 after prosecutors decided not to charge Roethlisberger with a crime in a case in which he was accused by a 20-year-old woman of sexual assault in a Georgia nightclub. Goodell later reduced Roethlisberger’s suspension to four games. Cornwell said the NFL could have accompanied its announcement of the Rice suspension with a public gesture to show intolerance for violence against women.

“In hindsight, the league could have, in conjunction with the [Rice] discipline and in partnership with the players’ association, done something to show support for organizations that help battered women,” Cornwell said in a telephone interview. “If the league had it to do all over again, I think it would have found a way to do that.”

The NFL declined this week to make Goodell available to be interviewed. He is expected to address media members while in Canton, Ohio, this weekend for Pro Football Hall of Fame activities. A top league official, Adolpho Birch, defended the league’s actions in a radio interview earlier this week.

“The discipline that was taken by the NFL is the only discipline that occurred, with respect to Mr. Rice, in this case,” Birch, the NFL’s senior vice president of labor policy and government affairs, told ESPN Radio. “I think that, were he not an NFL player, I don’t know that he would be able to receive any punishment from any other source.”

The suspension resulted from an incident in which Rice allegedly struck Janay Palmer, then his fiancée, in an Atlantic City hotel elevator in February, knocking her unconscious. Video became public showing Rice pulling an apparently unconscious Palmer from the elevator. The couple later married. Rice pleaded not guilty to a third-degree aggravated assault charge and was accepted into a pretrial intervention program, avoiding further prosecution.

The Ravens and their fans have remained supportive of Rice. He was cheered by the crowd during an open training camp practice Monday at M&T Bank Stadium. Kevin Byrne, the Ravens’ senior vice president of public and community relations, wrote on the team’s Web site that Rice “deserves this public and private flogging and the punishments that have come with it” but that the organization’s leaders “know turning your back on a loved one in a time of need is not what families do.”

Rice is scheduled to speak to reporters Thursday at the Ravens’ training camp.

Some say it’s not too late for the league to take further steps.

“I don’t think there’s a reason to think they don’t care,” Cornwell said. “I think there is a reason to believe they didn’t think it through well enough to find a way to show everyone that it matters. There’s a difference there. Some kind of contribution to a women’s group would have been the way to do that. I don’t think it’s too late. I think it’s something they should consider doing relatively quickly, and I think it should be the players’ association doing it in conjunction with the league.”

 

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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