Does The NFL Think Ray Rice's Wife Deserved It?

A week ago, we got news that the NFL had suspended Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice two games for the events of Feb. 15, when he allegedly knocked then-fiancée Janay Palmer unconscious in an Atlantic City casino elevator. The punishment fell well outside the usual disciplinary regime of commissioner Roger Goodell. As a confused friend of Deadspin put it in an email:

We know Goodell's all about a) consolidating power; and b) cadging for good PR. A small Rice suspension does neither and in fact chips away at both.

A week later, this is still a mystery. Why would Goodell—an authoritarian who loves to both wield the hammer and pander to a certain kind of right-thinking sentiment among the public—suddenly go soft on Ray Rice? Or, to put it another way: How the fuck was an NFL player who got caught on video dragging his unconscious fiancée out of an elevator suspended only two games?

The likeliest answer, the one most consistent both with the sketchy public record and the insinuations of mealy-mouthed NFL reporters, is that the league reads the incident in a way it wouldn't quite want to defend outright. According to this theory, Goodell doesn't see Rice as being entirely culpable, but rather as having responded to physical attacks on his person. Elements of provocation, one might call them.


Let's start with what we know:

On Feb. 15, at around 2:50 a.m., Rice and Palmer got into a fight in an elevator in Atlantic City's Revel Casino. Security called police, who rolled back the surveillance tape and saw that the couple had "struck each other with their hands." Shortly thereafter, both were arrested and charged with simple assault, suggesting that the cops believed them to be equally responsible. The two refused medical attention, according to the Baltimore Sun, and neither reported any injuries. The Sun also spoke with Rice's attorney, Andrew Alperstein, who said the fight was a "very minor physical altercation" and "little more than a misunderstanding." Early word around the Revel indicated otherwise, though at this point no one in any official capacity was reporting that Palmer had been knocked unconscious. The two were released and allowed to leave together, according to the Ravens' vice president of public and community relations, Kevin Byrne.

On Feb. 19, TMZ published security-cam footage of the aftermath of the incident. Rice can be seen dragging an unconscious Palmer from an elevator. No footage of the fight itself was made public; from various reports, though, we know such video exists. New Jersey prosecutors reviewed the case for weeks before presenting it to a grand jury, which in March cranked up the charge against Rice to third-degree aggravated assault, a felony. As one Atlantic City criminal defense expert, Joseph A. Levin, told the Baltimore Sun, third-degree aggravated assault requires "significant bodily injury." A loss of consciousness would qualify as such. Significantly, the charge against Palmer was dropped.

One March 28, a day after the indictment was announced, Rice and Palmer were married. On May 20, it was reported that Rice had entered a diversionary program that would let him avoid trial and perhaps clear the assault charge off his record. From the Sun:

Rice's attorney, Michael Diamondstein, said he will participate in the pre-trial intervention program for the next year, and must stay out of trouble and continue to receive family counseling with his wife. She wrote a letter to the court in support of him.

We know a great deal less about the NFL's investigation. We know that NFL got its hands on the full elevator tape. (Sports Illustrated's Peter King confirmed this in a recent mailbag.) And we know that on June 16, Rice and Palmer met with Goodell in his office. Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome, team president Dick Cass, NFL counsel Jeff Pash, and NFL senior vice president of labor policy and government affairs Adolpho Birch were also in the room. It was here, during a plea for leniency on her husband's behalf, that Palmer made "a very strong impression" and "portrayed herself well," in ESPN NFL reporter Chris Mortensen's approving words.

Palmer apparently had a profound effect on Goodell, who nine days later handed Rice a two-game suspension and a fine of three game checks (two from this year and one from last season, since the crime was committed during the 2013-2014 season).

Which brings us back to our confused friend. By what logic did Goodell decide to more or less give Rice a pass? Here's where we can only speculate, given that Goodell has delegated to Birch the unenviable task of explaining the suspension—Birch has not exactly covered himself in glory in this regard—and given that the NFL has been assiduous about not revealing, well, anything about its investigation. (Asked on an uncharacteristically hard-charging edition of Mike & Mike if Goodell had seen any video footage "that the general public has not seen," Birch tapdanced around the question. "Again, as I said, what we look at, who we talk to, those things should be afforded a level of privacy that we think is appropriate," he said.)

We can rule out the possibility that the commissioner felt helpless in the absence of a criminal conviction. In 2010, Goodell suspended Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger six games (eventually reduced to four) after the quarterback had been accused of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old woman. Goodell said that Roethlisberger had violated the league's personal conduct policy, even though he'd never been convicted in a court of law.

This means that Goodell must have made his decision on the facts of the case—that for whatever reason, he actually thought Rice's conduct didn't merit a harsher punishment. Why he would think this is the central question.

ESPN's initial coverage of the suspension is actually useful here, if only as a Pravda-like surrogate marker for the league's thinking. All Thursday long, ESPN personalities took turns showing their asses for the league and voicing their support for the NFL's decision. Tom Jackson, Skip Bayless, Jason Whitlock, and others all made sounds about the "pretty good job" the NFL has done in suspending "a model citizen" over "this incident." Adam Schefter went as far to ask, "Was the commissioner lenient enough? Was he not?" In a particularly ugly soundbite, Mort complimented Palmer on "being very effective in explaining her errors in the assault" during the couple's meeting with Goodell. "But at the same time," he added, "they had to have some penalty."

On Friday, Stephen A. Smith spoke about "elements of provocation" that could lead to a woman getting beaten up by a man. "Let's make sure we don't do anything to provoke wrong actions," he said, starting a farcical series of reiterations and clarifications that culminated in Monday morning's nationally televised apology.

Because the Worldwide Leader is such a reliable amplifier of NFL conventional wisdom, you could, in these initial justifications, discern the shape of the league's reasoning: Goodell either saw something on the tape or heard something in the meeting with Rice and his wife that he felt was exculpatory. Or more precisely, like the cops before him, Goodell saw or heard something that suggested to him that they were equally culpable ("her errors in the assault," Chris Mortensen had said), no matter the physical asymmetries and no matter the fact that only one of them wound up knocked cold on the floor of an elevator.

That's how Mort's sources—almost certainly NFL sources—saw things, in any case:

We saw the TMZ video of what happened outside—when he was dragging her out unconscious—but inside, I'm told from those who have seen the video, it wasn't pretty. In fact, she attacks him—we don't know the reason why—and he strikes her, strikes her hard. And her head—according to the sources I've spoken to—struck the rail inside the elevator and she was unconscious.

This is similar to the version of events teased out by Rice's lawyer, Michael Diamondstein, in a May 24 radio spot with Matt Hammond of ESPN 97.3 New Jersey.

This is just a complete hypothetical. Let's assume for the sake of argument, rather than enter into the pretrial diversionary program that [Rice] entered into, we hypothetically move forward on the case. And hypothetically we litigate 100 motions and the video comes out and the video shows—hypothetically speaking now, hypothetically speaking—shows that Ray wasn't the first person that hit, and Ray was getting repeatedly hit but just Ray hit harder, fired one back and hit harder. Hypothetically speaking, and he gets found not guilty. Is that result somehow better? Is it better for the public? Is it better for the Ravens? Is it better for Ray? Is it better for Janay?

What else could the league have been thinking? All but absolving Rice with a mere two-game suspension for knocking his unarmed fiancée unconscious and dragging her out of elevator necessarily requires Goodell and the NFL to subscribe to a specific kind of philosophy in which Rice's actions are absolvable—one in which he is a nearly passive agent, reacting to events in an understandable if unfortunate way.

If this was indeed the NFL's reasoning, it would explain a lot. It would explain ESPN's bizarre initial reaction. It would explain why the video of the two fighting inside the elevator hasn't leaked yet. (Who would benefit? As Rice's counsel alluded to in his cryptic interview, it would probably make both Palmer and Rice look bad, not to mention that it would force the NFL to confront in public what it decided behind closed doors.) And it would explain how the commissioner of the NFL could watch a video that ends with a man dragging the limp body of his unconscious fiancée out of an elevator and reach the conclusion that what happened at the start—whatever it was—was no worse than, say, a couple helmet-to-helmet hits.

For the NFL's actual reasoning to be that Palmer pushed for the fight, and Rice merely finished it, sounds almost unbelievable. But the only other credible hypothesis is that the league doesn't care at all about domestic violence, or about even being perceived as caring about domestic violence, and given Goodell's obsession with public perception, that isn't it. In fact, things are almost certainly as they seem, following a line of reasoning that sees Palmer as having "provoked" the "wrong actions," thus mitigating them. There's something bitterly funny about that. In the end, Stephen A. Smith got suspended a week from ESPN for recapitulating the essential logic of Ray Rice's suspension.

Photo credit: Getty