Roger Goodell thought he was bringing the hammer down Thursday when he and the NFL office announced a two-game suspension for Ravens running back Ray Rice for a domestic violence incident this offseason that violated the league’s personal conduct policy.
Instead, Goodell sparked a national outrage over what many considered to be a light punishment for a player shown on security cameras dragging his unconscious girlfriend (now wife) out of an Atlantic City hotel elevator. If Browns star receiver Josh Gordon can possibly get suspended for a year for a marijuana violation, how can Rice only get 1/8th of that for knocking out his girlfriend?
The punishment seems especially hollow given how the NFL salutes women throughout October, with teams donning pink gear and proceeds of sales of pink merchandise going to breast cancer research institutions. What should be nothing but a positive deed now looks like empty pandering by the NFL — the league cares about women, but only when there’s profit to be made.
But Goodell didn’t just pull a punishment out of his hat, either, or go lightly on Rice just because he’s a star player. And the Rice-Gordon comparison isn’t apples to apples. We don’t agree with the Rice decision (or kicking star players out of the league for smoking weed), but let’s explain how both decisions were made:
■ Gordon’s case is easy. The NFL has a clearly defined drug policy that was negotiated by the league and players association. For recreational drugs, such as marijuana and cocaine, one violation gets a player entered into the drug program, which means he starts getting randomly tested up to 10 times a month. A second violation is a four-game fine. A third violation is a four-game suspension, and a fourth violation is a year-long suspension. That means Gordon has four violations in just over two years in the league. A player’s “clock” is reset if he goes two years without failing a drug test. For performance-enhancing drugs, the penalty for a first offense is four games, followed by eight games, then a year-long ban. There is very little wiggle room when it comes to the NFL’s drug policy, although players like Brandon Browner, who had a year-long suspension reduced to four games, have revealed a few loopholes.
■ Now let’s break down what happened with Rice, entering his seventh NFL season.
Rice was arrested in February for striking his fiancée, Janay Palmer, and charged with felony aggravated assault. In May, a New Jersey prosecutor agreed to not pursue the case after Rice agreed to enter a pretrial intervention program that allowed him to avoid jail time and have the incident eventually cleared from his record.
But he still had to deal with the NFL, and Rice had a meeting with Goodell at the league offices June 17. As explained by an agent with two decades of experience, NFL disciplinary meetings are set up like a court of law, with Goodell serving as judge and jury. The player is usually accompanied by an attorney and anyone who wants to speak on his behalf, and the NFL has attorneys who “cross-examine” the player and his testimony. According to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, Rice was supported at his meeting by Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome, president Dick Cass and Palmer, while the NFL was represented by attorney Jeff Pash, who has sat in on disciplinary meetings since the days of Paul Tagliabue, and NFL senior VP Adolpho Birch. Goodell has final say on matters, but doesn’t make any decisions without consulting Pash, Birch, and others.
And you can follow the logic on how they came up with a two-game suspension. This was Rice’s first arrest, and first violation of the league’s conduct policy in his seven years. Rice wasn’t officially charged with a crime, he sought counseling, and his wife made a passionate plea to Goodell not to suspend Rice too harshly and wreck his reputation. Rice also has been one of the Ravens’ leaders in the Baltimore community, working at the forefront of an anti-bullying campaign in Maryland.
And a review of other domestic violence arrests in the NFL over the past five years shows that few players earn suspensions — most cases end in diversion programs, NFL fines, charges being dropped by prosecutors, or the player simply being cut by the team.
So Goodell and the NFL thought they were being harsh but fair when they handed down a two-game suspension (and three-game fine totaling over $529,000) to a first-time offender. Rice’s suspension starts Aug. 30 and he must miss division games against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
“We simply cannot tolerate conduct that endangers others or reflects negatively on our game,” Goodell wrote in a letter to Rice. “This is particularly true with respect to domestic violence and other forms of violence against women.”
But Goodell seems tone-deaf to domestic violence given the ugly video released by TMZ showing Rice dragging his unconscious wife out of the elevator. No doubt, if the video didn’t exist, the outrage against Rice and the NFL wouldn’t be so harsh. But it does exist, and it makes a two-game suspension seem menial, especially given the severe penalties for marijuana users.
The prevailing thought around the league was that Rice would get at least a four-game suspension. “No one but Rice would have complained if he got four games,” the agent said. “Three games would have still sent a message. But two games? That’s a joke.”
If Goodell really cares about women, the NFL should worry less about selling pink jerseys in October and more about making an example out of domestic violence offenders.
HOLD THAT THOUGHT
Not all players went through with threat
With all 32 teams opening training camps last week, a look at some of the early story lines that have emerged:
■ Most players didn’t follow through on their threat to hold out (perhaps it had something to do with a $30,000 fine for each day missed). Texans receiver Andre Johnson not only reported to camp on Friday, now he’s talking about working for the team when his career is done. 49ers tight end Vernon Davis reported to camp on Wednesday, the Cowboys released Kyle Orton before being forced to pay him, and the Chiefs got a double dose of good news — not only did pass rusher Justin Houston not hold out, but they were also able to come to an agreement with running back Jamaal Charles that ended his holdout and pays him an extra $4-plus million this year.
Two players who followed through on their holdout threats — 49ers guard Alex Boone and Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch. The players must play in at least six games this season to get credit for an official NFL season.
■ Key players who haven’t been medically cleared to start the season: Cardinals CB Tyrann Mathieu (ACL), 49ers LB NaVorro Bowman (knee), Dolphins C Mike Pouncey (hip) and RB Knowshon Moreno (knee), Titans G Andy Levitre (appendix), Vikings S Captain Munnerlyn (hamstring), Steelers S Mike Mitchell (groin), Raiders CB D.J. Hayden (foot), Seahawks LB Bruce Irvin (hip), Bears G Kyle Long (viral infection), Bengals DT Geno Atkins (knee), LT Andrew Whitworth (calf) and TE Jermaine Gresham (back), Lions WR Golden Tate (shoulder) and DE Ziggy Ansah (shoulder), Texans LB Brian Cushing (knee), Jets G Willie Colon (knee), and Giants LB Jon Beason (foot). Colts RB Vick Ballard (out for season) and Ravens CB Aaron Ross both tore their Achilles’ tendon in non-contact practices last week.
■ Seahawks WR Sidney Rice, 27, retired last week after seven NFL seasons. He is coming off a torn ACL and says he suffers effects of multiple concussions. And on Friday, guard Carl Nicks and the Buccaneers reached an “amicable settlement” to end Nicks’s tenure with the team. Nicks, 29, didn’t make any official announcement, but it sounds as if he will retire.
■ The signing of Titans first-round pick OT Taylor Lewan (11th overall) was announced Thursday, wrapping up this year’s rookie class. All 256 rookies signed in time for training camp.
HIGH TURNOVER RATE
League is watching ownership movement
The NFL is known for having a high turnover rate among players, but now it’s starting to affect the ownership ranks. Jaguars owner Shad Khan and Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, who both took control in 2012, are quickly becoming veterans among owners. Longtime Denver owner Pat Bowlen, who stepped down last week because of his battle with Alzheimer’s, became the fifth owner to relinquish his team or die since 2013. That list includes the Bills’ Ralph Wilson, the Lions’ William Clay Ford, the Bucs’ Malcolm Glazer, and the Titans’ Bud Adams. As of now, only the Bills are up for sale. The Bucs, Lions and Titans were passed on to family members, and Bowlen intends to pass the Broncos down to one of his seven children (for now, Broncos CEO Joe Ellis, a graduate of Milton Academy, is running the team). But Patriots owner Robert Kraft said it is a “critical” time for the NFL to make sure the right people are running the teams.
“Right now, the only thing that can mess up the NFL is ownership,” Kraft told me last week. “You have to be very conscious of people we bring in, and they’re people that are passionate about their franchise the way Pat was, about winning and doing it the right way.”
Kraft said he and the other owners are keeping an eye on the Bills situation from afar, but they don’t want to see the team eventually leave Western New York when its stadium deal allows it in 2020 or expires in 2022.
“I think we’d love to see someone really strong who wants to keep the team in Buffalo,” Kraft said. “That’s a tremendous fan base up there that is deserving of a good owner who understands how important the franchise is to the region.”
Adopted in 2011, HGH test still not being done
The NFL and union heralded an unprecedented step in pro sports in 2011 by announcing a new drug program that would test for HGH, but here were are in 2014, and the NFL is about to embark on its fourth straight season without the testing being implemented.
The NFLPA sent a letter to all players on Friday blaming the NFL’s refusal to “commit to fair due process” for players who wish to appeal. The holdup is that the union (rightfully) wants an outside third party to oversee appeals, and not Goodell. States the letter: “Players deserve a fair system, similar to Major League Baseball’s, which includes neutral arbitration for all alleged offenses of our drug policies.”
Count at least one group against the Vikings’ new $1 billion stadium, set to open in 2016 — Minnesota’s Audubon Society, a chapter of the world’s largest bird conservation group. The new stadium will be built with a glass roof, and Audubon is concerned it will be dangerous to birds. The group released a survey claiming that more than 125 species of bird have died since 2007 while flying into buildings in the Twin Cities area, and wants the Vikings to make the roof more reflective and transparent.
“We’re talking about a billion dollar stadium here, and the cost to save perhaps thousands of migratory birds — and make the Vikings a global leader in green stadium design — is about one-tenth of one percent of that,” Audubon Minnesota executive director Matthew Anderson said in a release. “Hundreds of millions of dollars of public money is going to build this stadium, and we know the people of Minnesota do not want their money killing birds.
Darrelle Revis always trains in Arizona each summer before training camp, and it was interesting to see a few of his Patriots teammates join him this year at Fischer Sports: Logan Ryan, Tavon Wilson and Devin McCourty, as well as his twin brother, Jason, and a few non-Patriots.
Former Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum was impressed by Revis’s ability to bring his teammates together over the summer. “To get that sort of attendance says a lot about the swagger that he has in that locker room,” Tanenbaum said last week.
That sound you heard last week was about 700 certified NFL agents grumbling over the fee hike from the NFLPA to retain membership — from $1,200 to $1,500 for agents with fewer than 10 clients, and from $1,700 to $2,000 to agents with more than 10 clients. The NFLPA explained that the increase is because of rising costs of maintaining the agent regulation system and upgrades to the union’s website. This should add about $200,000 to the NFLPA’s coffers, which seems like an awful lot for maintaining a website and “regulation system” . . . It’s hard to see Johnny Manziel beating out Brian Hoyer for the Browns starting quarterback job at this point, but the schedule sets up well for Manziel to take over sooner than later. The Browns have a bye in Week 4, then a relatively easy stretch: at Tennessee, vs. Pittsburgh, at Jacksonville, vs. Oakland, and vs. Tampa Bay . . . Disappointed to hear the NFL draft advisory board will urge more players to stay in school instead of declaring for the draft starting this winter. It sounds like the NFL is just trying to exploit the colleges for free player development. For a great majority of kids, playing for even a minimum NFL salary is better than playing for free in college.
From Cardinals coach Bruce Arians, explaining why he had his players stretch on their own before practice instead of doing it together as a team: “If a Doberman jumped out of a car with a gun, your [rear end] wouldn’t be stretching,” Arians said on Friday. “You’d be running.”
email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.