Former Ravens running back Ray Rice has been cleared to return to the NFL.
Former U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones ruled in favor of the 27-year-old’s appeal of an indefinite suspension handed down by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Sept. 8, the same day TMZ released a video of Rice striking then-fiancée Janay Palmer in the face in at Atlantic City casino elevator. Jones decided the NFL had unfairly punished Rice twice for the same act despite Goodell’s claim that the running back’s account of what had happened was ambiguous when they met in June.
“In this arbitration, the NFL argues that Commissioner Goodell was misled when he disciplined Rice the first time,” Jones wrote in her decision. “Because, after careful consideration of all of the evidence, I am not persuaded that Rice lied to, or misled, the NFL at his June interview, I find that the indefinite suspension was an abuse of discretion and must be vacated.”
Rice had initially been suspended two games — a punishment received with much public contempt — and was set to return to the Ravens in Week 3 before the second video was released the morning after the season-opening loss to Cincinnati. Baltimore terminated Rice’s contract moments before the NFL announced his indefinite suspension.
The NFL and the Ravens have maintained they never saw the video evidence of what happened inside the elevator of the Revel Casino, but Jones ruled that Rice’s story of what had happened was accurate and the video brought no new evidence that warranted a second suspension. General manager Ozzie Newsome stated publicly that Rice never lied to him about what happened with Palmer, but team officials admitted seeing the graphic video changed their perception of the incident after standing by him for nearly seven months.
Jones ruled that any shock or outcry over the release of the inside-the-elevator video should not have influenced what was already a standing punishment.
“I do not doubt that viewing the video in September evoked horror in Commissioner Goodell as it did with the public,” Jones wrote. “But this does not change the fact that Rice did not lie or mislead the NFL at the June 16 meeting.”
The hearing took place in New York in early November with Rice, Goodell, Newsome, and others testifying.
Rice issued the following statement through the NFL Players Association after the decision was announced:
“I would like to thank Judge Barbara Jones, the NFL Players Association, my attorneys, agents, advisors, family, friends and fans — but most importantly, my wife Janay. I made an inexcusable mistake and accept full responsibility for my actions. I am thankful that there was a proper appeals process in place to address this issue. I will continue working hard to improve myself and be the best husband, father and friend, while giving back to my community and helping others to learn from my mistakes.”
In a statement, the NFL acknowledged it would not challenge Jones’ ruling.
“We respect Judge Jones’s decision to reinstate Ray Rice from his indefinite suspension for violating the league’s Personal Conduct Policy in an incident of domestic violence,” the league stated. “Ray Rice is a free agent and has been eligible to be signed by an NFL team since he was released by the Ravens. Based on Judge Jones’ decision, he will be eligible to play upon signing a new contract.”
Rice had technically been free to sign with another team, but the lifting of his suspension now makes him eligible to play after he was banned for the first 12 weeks of the season. It remains to be seen if a team would be interested in the public relations distraction of immediately signing a player so closely linked with domestic violence, which remains a hot-button topic around the league.
The potential public backlash would be obvious, but Rice is also coming off the worst season of his career in which he averaged just 3.1 yards per carry and gained only 660 rushing yards. Rice dropped weight this past offseason and appeared in good shape during training camp and the preseason, but it’s uncertain if any team would risk signing him to a contract at least between now and the end of the 2014 season.
“I hope he gets a second chance,” former Ravens teammate and close friend Torrey Smith said earlier this week. “We live in a country where you are supposed to truly get second chances, and our judicial system is based on that. It’s supposed to be, at least. It’s not always that way. But [I hope] he gets a chance to redeem himself and show people who he really is, because that guy on that tape made a bad decision.”
Rice also has a separate wrongful termination grievance against the Ravens. If he wins that, he could collect as much as $3.2 million in base salary originally owed this season, but that case is more complicated considering the latitude NFL teams have in releasing players.
What Friday’s decision really means for Rice in 2014 remains to be seen, but the NFLPA will view it as a significant victory challenging the autonomy of Goodell in such matters.
“This decision is a victory for a disciplinary process that is fair and transparent,” the union stated. “This union will always stand up and fight for the due process of our players. We take no pleasure in seeing a decision that confirms what we have been saying about the Commissioner’s office acting arbitrarily. The only remaining action is for NFL owners to embrace a fair process with a neutral arbitrator in all cases. The players thank Judge Barbara Jones for her time and thoroughness in this matter.”