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The NFL's Failure in the Ray Rice Scandal Went Way Beyond the Commissioner

Alex Goodlett/Getty Images Sport

Editor's Note: The Baltimore Ravens on Monday afternoon issued a lengthy, strongly worded statement disputing the details of ESPN's report on the Ray Rice story. You can read it in full here. on Friday night published a thoroughly reported and thoroughly devastating reconstruction of how professional football has handled the Ray Rice situation. The story makes Roger Goodell and the NFL look bad. It makes the front office of the Baltimore Ravens look even worse. And it makes you wonder: How many other times, with how many other players and teams, has this sort of thing happened?

The article, written by Don Van Natta and Kevin Van Valkenburg, takes readers all the way back to February—when Rice and Janay Palmer, who was his fiancée at the time, got into an elevator at an Atlantic City hotel. The couple had been drinking and, according to the article, arguing about wedding guests lists and a text Rice had received from a young woman who worked for the Ravens. Then came the sequence everyone in America has now seen on video, thanks to security cameras in and just outside the elevator: Rice hit Palmer, knocking her unconscious. Afterwards, he casually dragged her out of the elevator. 

Officials with the Ravens and the NFL have said, repeatedly, they did not know exactly what had happened until the website TMZ published the second video, the one that captures Rice actually striking Palmer. If the ESPN story is right, Ravens and NFL officials are either lying or parsing their words very, very carefully. According to the article, an Atlantic City police officer gave a detailed description of that video to Darren Sanders, head of security for the Ravens, who in turn relayed that information to Ravens officials. This conversation reportedly happened just hours after the incident. Rice subsequently gave a similarly candid account when meeting with members of the Ravens front office, according to the article.

Michael Diamondstein, Rice’s attorney, eventually got his hands on the video. After viewing it, the article says, he telephoned Ravens President Dick Cass and told him that “the video was ‘f---ing horrible’ and that it was clear ‘Ray knocked her the f--- out.’ The lawyer advised Cass that the video, if released, would amount to a public relations disaster for the Ravens and for his client.” 

And how did Cass react? Here’s what Van Natta and Van Valkenberg report:

Cass did not request a copy of the video from Diamondstein but instead began urging Rice's legal team to get Rice accepted into a pretrial intervention program after being told some of the program's benefits. Among them: It would keep the inside-elevator video from becoming public.

The Ravens issued a statement to ESPN saying that the article contains “numerous errors, inaccuracies, false assumptions and, perhaps, misunderstandings.” The organization also says it will provide a fuller accounting of those alleged inaccuracies during the week. As always, it's impossible for an outsider to know whether the article gets some things wrong—or at least misses nuances. Sometimes that happens with complicated narratives, whether because people simply remember facts differently or because one group of sources is pushing a particular agenda.

But ESPN says its account is based on interviews with “more than 20 sources.” And it’s textured in ways that lend it credibility. For one thing, it mentions two members of the Ravens organization who were not eager to excuse Rice’s behavior. Upon seeing the first video, which showed only the aftermath of the attack, Ravens Head Coach John Harbaugh was reportedly “horrified” and “urged his bosses to release Rice immediately, especially if the team had evidence Rice had thrown a punch. That opinion was shared by George Kokinis, the Baltimore director of player personnel ... But Harbaugh's recommendation to cut the six-year veteran running back was quickly rejected by Ravens management.”

The article also paints a more complicated picture of Rice—as somebody who was sincerely interested in community service and who felt genuine remorse about what happened in the elevator. Such remorse is of course common among abusers. But that sentiment, combined with the very real financial consequences that criminal activity has for Rice, suggests he might be among the small minority of batterers who change behavior after going through the kind of pretrial “diversion” therapy that his lawyer eventually won for him. 

As for Goodell, the article suggests that he, too, had a clear understanding of what happened in the elevator, because Rice told him about it during their meeting. But, the article reports, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti had urged Goodell to go easy on Rice, citing the player's history of community service and the fact that it was a first-time offense. In two prior episodes—one involving a team stealing another team’s sideline signals, another involving a coach putting “bounties” on opposing players—the NFL had hunted down and obtained video evidence to make the case for penalties. But, according to the article: 

In the Rice case, as Goodell was being lobbied to be lenient, the league made only a token effort to obtain the inside-elevator video that was clearly the most critical piece of evidence. League officials tried to get it from law enforcement, but Goodell said it would be "illegal" to try to obtain it from the Revel casino, which legal experts later said was not true. 

Assuming these revelations hold up, they are sure to embolden those calling for Goodell's resignation. And it's hard to argue that he's earned the right to keep his job. As Dara Lind observed at Vox, "The general impression that the new report gives is that the NFL isn't governed by policies — it's governed by relationships between people, especially between Goodell and team executives." The most charitable interpretation of the ESPN article is that Goodell is merely hapless, rather than insensitive or scheming. When you're the head of a professional sports league that prides itself on its positive public image—and when you make $44 million a year—haplessness is probably a firing offense.

Still, Goodell has done more than any of his predecessors (or any of his counterparts in other professional sports leagues) did following similar domestic violence controversies involving players. He has publicly admitted his mistake, instituted new disciplinary policies, and appointed an outside committee—including bona fide experts on domestic violence—to advise the league on future actions. And the NFL's problem is obviously much bigger than the commissioner's office. The Rice story has captured national attention because video cameras captured the incident. But it's not like this sort of thing never happened before. Goodell's ouster may or may not be necessary to fix the problem of domestic violence in pro football, but it certainly isn't sufficient.