Note: This is not a defense of Ray Rice or any of the parties involved, but an analysis of the situation as it currently stands. For the sake of full disclosure, the author resides in Baltimore and is a longstanding Ravens fan. Finally, I have chosen not to mention Ray Rice’s wife by name because she has suffered enough public embarrassment to no fault of her own, and I want to address the situation without adding to her pain.
The entire situation involving Ray Rice is extremely sad. From all accounts, Ray Rice was considered a decent individual with a bit of a Napoleon Complex who made one grave mistake. By the time OTAs (Offseason Training Activities) began every person having interest in the NFL knew that Ray Rice had brought significant enough harm to his then fiancé to render her unconscious so as to need to drag her from an elevator in an Atlantic City casino. In the last 72 hours, everyone – and I do mean everyone – has asked if the Ravens and the NFL saw TMZ’s video of the incident inside the elevator prior to its public release. That’s the wrong question. The right question is – What did the Ravens and the NFL expect to see? Seeing actual video footage is damning and always brings horrific action into clearer light, but nothing in that footage should have shocked anyone. When the Ravens terminated Rice’s contract and the NFL suspended him yesterday it appeared to be a visceral reaction to save face. In fact, Raven’s owner Steve Bisciotti’s letter and Head Coach John Harbaugh’s comments reflect that the team’s termination of Rice’s contract was a direct reaction to the video.
The league’s initial two-game ban was based on several factors including Rice’s status as a first time offender, his community involvement, entry into a diversionary program in the criminal case, continued couples counseling, and his wife’s involvement in the disciplinary hearing. And it should have accounted for what occurred inside the elevator based on the video evidence of Rice dragging his fiancé’s limp body from the elevator. Exacting additional and punitive punishment based on the newly released video is a thinly veiled attempt to mitigate the league’s failure to adequately deal with the situation, based on public reaction, when first presented with the opportunity.
Assuming the team and the league never saw the video before yesterday, the only way further action on their part is understandable is if the consequences handed down were based on Rice’s version of events either being an incomplete truth or a downright lie. It’s akin to a plea bargain in a criminal case where a defendant agrees to plead down to a lesser charge in exchange for truthful and complete testimony – and if that testimony is revealed to be less than the whole truth the plea can be thrown out and the original charge re-instated. However, there is absolutely no evidence to that. No matter how abhorrent Rice’s actions may have been, I still expect the Player’s Union to step in on Rice’s behalf. Otherwise, a dangerous precedent might be set as the Collective Bargaining Agreement specifically excludes Double Jeopardy.
What are Rice’s options and what is the Union’s likely response?
Rice’s initial suspension of two games was issued under the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy as applied to players under Article 46 of the CBA. Prior to the suspension, the NFL conducted its investigation and Roger Goodell held a hearing which included statements from Rice and the victim, now his wife. Once the two-game suspension was handed down – no matter how light – and Rice neglected to appeal, the Commissioner’s decision “constitute[d] full, final and complete disposition of the dispute and will be binding upon the player(s), Club(s) and the parties to this Agreement with respect to that dispute.” This means that Rice cannot be subjected to any additional discipline for his conduct in that Atlantic City casino. NFL teams routinely wait for the league to render any discipline because the CBA permits only a singular punishment for the same act.
The Ravens termination of Rice’s contract could be construed as a secondary consequence for the same act that resulted in the 2-game suspension. It matters that the NFL suspended Rice prior to his release from the Ravens for the same conduct that brought about the suspension. Rice and the Players’ Association have 50 days – October 28th – to file a non-injury grievance for both the indefinite suspension and termination of his contract. The non-injury grievance procedure should govern in order to determine if the NFL and Ravens abused their power by issuing a second suspension under the Personal Conduct Policy and if the team’s release of Rice constituted a secondary punishment. No matter how repulsive Rice’s actions, the NFL is obligated to operate under the constraints imposed by the CBA.
Now that the Ravens cut Ray Rice, will they have to pay him?
Any player that has accrued at least four years of service is eligible for termination pay. Having been cut after the first regular season game and been on the team’s inactive list while serving his two-game suspension Rice is eligible to receive the balance of his 2014 salary. Due to earn $3,529,412 for the entirety of the entirety of the 2014 season, Rice is eligible to receive just over $3.1 MM when factoring in his two game suspension – assuming he wins a non-injury grievance for the indefinite suspension levied by the commissioner. Even if Rice’s indefinite suspension were to stand it is unclear whether his right to termination pay would be superseded by the indefinite suspension since a suspension is not a factor in making a player ineligible for termination pay – especially when the suspension was handed down after he was cut. If Rice were to elect and receive termination pay from the Ravens, he would be ineligible for termination pay in the future as veterans with four plus years of service time can elect to receive termination pay only once.
What if any is the likely fallout for the NFL?
The way the League handled – or mishandled if you prefer – the Ray Rice situation is Exhibit A for the problems with the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy. Up until now it was only the Players who had an issue with what they perceived as Roger Goodell’s heavy-handedness and inconsistent approach to discipline. That same free reign and judge, jury, and executioner approach that Goodell wielded could inevitably be his undoing. The public outcry and Goodell’s late adoption of a coherent domestic violence policy will most likely result in a much more elaborate Personal Conduct Policy with specifically defined consequences applied evenly across the board to players, coaches, front office and league personnel, and owners. Based on the League’s fumbling this latest incident, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if the NFL’s next Personal Conduct Policy stripped Goodell of his autonomy and instituted an independent investigation unit while using a committee approach for either hearings or appeals. It’s ironic that the disciplinary procedure Goodell implemented and refused to yield led to the greatest stain since he assumed the role of Commissioner.
How should the Ravens and the NFL move on from this in a positive way?
No one will deny that the NFL and to a lesser extent the Ravens have botched this from the beginning. (As previously mentioned, teams predominantly allow the league to investigate and render judgment in order to allow for a more uniform system of discipline.) If the Ravens are truly embarrassed by this incident, then merely cutting Ray Rice is not the answer. The House of Ruth and My Sister’s Place has an active presence in the Baltimore community. Since the Ravens play on Thursday Night Football this week why not use the extra time before playing the Browns in Week 3 to visit women affected by Domestic Violence. Further, how about donating the equivalent of Rice’s remaining salary regardless of whether he elects to receive termination pay. The Ravens could also take advantage of their 70,000 strong captive audience at M&T Bank Stadium to take a public stance against the issue of domestic violence and perhaps provide tickets to victims to escape, even for just a few hours, the horrors of domestic violence.
The NFL has no problem using concern for women’s’ issues as a way to drive interest in the game of football with the ultimate goal of increasing league revenues. Let’s be honest – the NFL’s adoption of October to use pink flags and uniform accessories is geared towards selling tickets to women, having them buy pink jerseys, and investing more time and money towards the NFL’s product. If the NFL was serious about domestic violence the league would make a public plea against the issue in all 32 stadiums, use their television ad time to advocate against Domestic Violence in the same way it advocates for the Play 60 Campaign, and turn the “pinkifacation” of October toward all women’s issues – not just breast cancer.
Everything about the Ray Rice situation has been upsetting, but hopefully this negative can be transformed into a positive by addressing the endemic issue of domestic violence.