Ray Rice is eligible to return to the NFL after an arbitrator overturned his indefinite suspension Friday, but the former Ravens star still faces a difficult path to regaining public acceptance and persuading a team to sign him.
Former U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones ruled that league commissioner Roger Goodell had improperly punished Rice twice for striking then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, at an Atlantic City casino in February.
Goodell suspended Rice indefinitely on Sept. 8, shortly after a video of the assault surfaced. The commissioner had previously suspended Rice two games for the incident, prompting a fierce outcry from critics who said the league did not take domestic violence seriously enough.
In her ruling, which brought new scrutiny to Goodell's oft-criticized handling of player discipline, Jones called the second, indefinite suspension “arbitrary.”
“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,” she wrote.
Now, after 12 weeks on the sideline, Rice could return to a league that was shaken to its foundation by his actions, though it's unclear if any team will risk the public backlash that would likely come with signing the former Pro Bowl selection.
Rice will begin his attempt to mend his public image when NBC's “Today” show airs interviews of Rice and his wife on Monday and Tuesday. ESPN released an interview with Janay Rice shortly after Friday's decision.
Rice did not mention football in a statement reacting to his reinstatement.
“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,” he said. “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.”
Janay Rice sharply criticized her husband's former team in the ESPN interview.
“I was extremely surprised and angry that the Ravens released him, because they know him,” she said. “They were our family, but I felt like the Ravens completely disregarded the past six years with him.”
Former teammates, meanwhile, said they'd like to see Rice get another chance in the NFL. After Jones' ruling, Ravens players union representative Chris Canty told The Baltimore Sun that he's glad to see Rice reinstated.
“I'm happy for Ray and his family,” Canty said in a text message. “Glad that he has an opportunity to get back to doing what he loves. I believe that this also presents an opportunity for the NFL and [NFL Players Association] to address the disciplinary process. This process in its current form has failed the players, coaches, NFL employees and, most importantly, our fans.”
Retired linebacker Brad Jackson said Rice is in a good state of mind and training for a return but added that some people will never forgive his friend.
“Ray has taken 100 percent responsibility for his actions. America is a nation of second chances. What transpired is unfortunate, but the judge has made her determination and reinstated him,” Jackson said. “We've seen plenty of people who've made mistakes in the past correct their mistakes. That will be a process.”
The Ravens released Rice, long one of their best and most popular players, just a few hours after celebrity news site TMZ posted the video Sept. 8. The team had stood by him for almost seven months after an initial video in February showed Rice dragging an unconscious Palmer from an elevator at the Revel Casino.
But team officials said video of the punch changed the severity of the situation for them. Goodell made similar comments, saying the video showed a “starkly different sequence of events” than Rice described in a June meeting with the commissioner.
The Ravens declined comment on the decision Friday.
After hearing two days of testimony from the Rices, Goodell and others, including Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome, in early November, Jones ruled that Rice had told the truth about his actions in June.
In her decision, she noted Newsome was one of those who testified Rice had told Goodell he hit Palmer.
‘Rice did not lie'
Jones wasn't persuaded by the NFL's argument that Rice had said he merely slapped Palmer and that she had “knocked herself out” on the railing inside the elevator. Jones described Goodell's recollections of the June meeting as vague.
“I do not doubt that viewing the video in September evoked horror in Commissioner Goodell as it did with the public,” the arbitrator wrote. “But this does not change the fact that Rice did not lie or mislead the NFL at the June 16 meeting.”
The NFL, in a statement, said it respects “Judge Jones' decision to reinstate Ray Rice from his indefinite suspension. 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.”
The decision raised further doubts about Goodell's oversight of a personal-conduct policy that's already under scrutiny from the players union. In case after case, including the recent suspension of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson for child abuse, players have questioned the commissioner's ability to render fair decisions.
In September, Goodell named former FBI Director Robert Mueller to lead an independent investigation on the NFL's handling of the Rice case. His investigation is ongoing.
In a statement after Friday's appeal verdict, the players union called for changes to the discipline policy, including neutral arbitration for all cases: “This decision is a victory for a disciplinary process that is fair and transparent. … While we take no pleasure in seeing a decision that confirms what we have been saying about the Commissioner's office acting arbitrarily, we hope that this will bring the NFL owners to the collective bargaining table to fix a broken process.”
Rice's attorney, Peter Ginsberg, slammed Goodell, saying the commissioner had ignored the league's problems with domestic violence and “turned his own failings on Ray by punishing him a second time.”
Rice, 27, also has a separate grievance pending against the Ravens claiming wrongful termination of his $35 million contract. If he wins that case, he could collect as much as $3.2 million in salary for this season.
He avoided a criminal trial on assault charges after he entered a pretrial intervention program that could leave him with a clean record if he completes mandated anger management counseling.
Rice and Janay Palmer married in March, and she attended the appeal hearing with him. The couple has remained largely out of public view since the video emerged in early September, with Rice granting no significant interviews.
In her ESPN interview, Janay Rice described her version of the casino incident, saying she slapped her then-fiancee twice and had only foggy memories of the events in the elevator, where he struck her.
She recalled the June meeting with Goodell, which she attended: “Ray told the commissioner, and his colleagues, everything that happened. There was no reason to lie because we knew that there was a video and we assumed the NFL knew what was in it, even though we didn't know whether or not they saw it.”
Janay Rice said her husband has told the truth all along and accepted full responsibility for his actions. “We have no guarantees about Ray's future in football, but I know that this experience has made us far more aware of what's really important and how fortunate we are,” she said.
Despite his appeal victory, Rice's NFL future remains uncertain. He came to Ravens training camp 5 pounds lighter and played well. But he's coming off a dreadful 2013 season in which he averaged 3.1 yards per carry, and running backs often wear out more quickly than other offensive stars.
Combine those factors with the likely negative publicity, and a potential Rice signing becomes a difficult cost-benefit decision for even the neediest team.
Rice's Atlanta-based agent, Todd France, will aggressively market the running back to NFL teams, but finding a job for him with just five weeks left in the season could prove challenging. Some NFL teams have been receptive to Rice, according to sources, but his return remains a tough sell.
Former Ravens coach Brian Billick said he expects Rice back in the league, though he didn't specify when. “I would be shocked if someone didn't take a chance on what — outside of this singular incident — has been a model citizen,” Billick said.
Rice can make his way back, said David Cornwell, a former NFL counsel who has represented Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and former Ravens wide receiver Donte Stallworth in disciplinary matters. Stallworth faced a one-year suspension after he was charged with DUI manslaughter in 2009.
“There's definitely a path back to the NFL for Ray, and Donte's situation is proof of that,” Cornwell said. “The question becomes, ‘How do you separate these kind of circumstances from the public outcry?' That's one of the things we confronted with Donte. People were mad that he didn't get more jail time, but that was predicated by the legal system. Ray is in a tough situation, but this is a league of second chances, and I believe that he'll get one.”
Anti-violence groups had lambasted the NFL for its initial discipline of Rice. But Sandi Timmins, executive director of House of Ruth Maryland, offered no critique of Rice's reinstatement.
“Intimate partner violence is a societal issue and is much bigger than Ray Rice,” she said in a statement Friday. “While unfortunate, this specific incident continues to shine a light on violence against women, and generates the public conversation we need to have to hold people accountable for abusive behavior.”