A month after suspending Ravens running back Ray Rice two games for domestic violence, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledged he "didn't get it right" and announced significantly harsher penalties for players who commit abuse or sexual assault, including possible lifetime bans for second offenders.
The league released its tougher stance the same day the House of Ruth Maryland and the Ravens revealed a three-year partnership that will include a $600,000 donation from the team, training for the players and staff and promotional work on behalf of the centers for abused women and children.
Taken together, the announcements indicate the NFL's heightened seriousness about domestic violence in the wake of harsh backlash from critics who regarded Rice's suspension as too light.
Goodell sent a letter to the league's owners Thursday announcing the new penalties. They include a six-game suspension for a first offense and a lifetime ban for a second, with the possibility for the player to apply for reinstatement after one year.
"At times … and despite our best efforts, we fall short of our goals," Goodell wrote. "We clearly did so in response to a recent incident of domestic violence. ... My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values."
The Ravens, meanwhile, responded to the Rice situation by reaching out to House of Ruth Maryland.
As one of the most visible institutions in the state, the team will provide an unprecedented opportunity to educate the community on issues that are too often buried, said Sandi Timmins, executive director for House of Ruth Maryland.
"There's no question it truly, truly does give us a platform to speak our message," Timmins said. "And the fact the Ravens are so willing to let us do that, to use their influence and their reach into the community for this message ... is critical."
The timing of that announcement was not directly tied to Goodell's letter, which Timmins called "an unprecedented statement by the NFL."
"This type of leadership is critical to changing attitudes and behaviors in our society as it relates to violence against women," she said. "We know that with the NFL's substantial influence we can make groundbreaking progress in the fight against intimate partner violence."
Ravens president Dick Cass contacted Timmins shortly after the NFL announced Rice's suspension last month, she said. In February, a video emerged showing Rice dragging his unconscious fiancee, Janay Palmer, from the elevator of an Atlantic City, N.J., casino. Rice faced assault charges in connection with the incident but avoided trial in New Jersey by entering a pre-trial intervention program. He and Palmer subsequently married.
Timmins met with Cass and said she was impressed at his desire to understand all aspects of domestic violence and to find ways for the Ravens to make a sustained impact.
"The conversation was a lot around the issue itself," Timmins said. "There was a desire to understand more about the issue, to understand more about the work the House of Ruth does, to understand more about the prevalence of the issue and then to determine how they could have some kind of a community partnership with us to leverage their influence in a way that goes beyond a single incident."
Dozens of NFL players have faced domestic violence charges in the past decade, but between Rice's prominence as player and community leader and the widespread viewing of the casino video, his case touched a particular nerve. Critics, noting that Rice's two-game suspension was less than those for many drug offenses and other disciplinary problems, accused the NFL and the Ravens of being callous to the issue.
"The public response reinforced my belief that the NFL is held to a higher standard, and properly so," Goodell wrote to the owners. "Much of the criticism stemmed from a fundamental recognition that the NFL is a leader, that we do stand for important values, and that we can project those values in ways that have a positive impact beyond professional football."
Goodell said the league would step up its efforts to educate players and other employees and explore ways to make domestic violence a larger focus of its community service efforts.
The Ravens had no comment on Goodell's letter and said that Rice wouldn't be talking to reporters Thursday as they played their final game of the preseason in New Orleans. Rice's punishment is not affected by the plan announced Thursday. He will miss the first two games of the regular season, Sept. 7 against the Cincinnati Bengals and Sept. 11 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and lose $529,000 in wages.
Asked if Rice could face a lifetime ban if he's involved in another incident, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello declined to comment on specific cases. "However, under this new policy, each case will be addressed individually on its merits," Aiello said. "Generally, prior history has always factored in the way the league determines discipline."
The NFL Players Association released the following statement in response to Goodell's letter: "As we do in all disciplinary matters, if we believe that players' due process rights are infringed upon during the course of discipline, we will assert and defend our members' rights."
Though the NFL has given grants to player foundations that combat domestic violence, the league has never thrown its entire weight behind the cause as it has with the United Way or breast cancer awareness. The Ravens' partnership with House of Ruth appears to represent a new level of commitment on the issue.
It's telling, Timmins said, that the Ravens will begin with training sessions for their own players and staff on spotting signs of domestic violence and confronting it in the workplace.
"The Ravens recognize the outstanding service the House of Ruth Maryland provides to our community and we want to help increase its influence," Cass said in a statement. "We also look forward to the education the House of Ruth Maryland will provide to members of our organization."
Timmins also spent significant time with Rice and Palmer last week and said both are committed to helping the House of Ruth above and beyond the Ravens' efforts.
"I spent a great deal of time with them, and over time, the message from Ray was consistent," she said. "It was passionate. He wanted to let everybody know that he owns what he did, that it was wrong and that he apologized to his wife. … He spoke very freely about the counseling he is receiving and shared some personal things that were consistently heartfelt."
Timmins said Rice could have tremendous impact as an activist on the issue, especially in speaking with men, who are an often-unreached target audience for the House of Ruth. She knows some will view the initiative as a cynical attempt to move past the Rice controversy, but she sees it as a genuine effort to create some good in the wake of a painful situation.
"It does go well beyond writing a check or having a couple of press conferences," she said. "In the world of sports or the world of social media, these things move pretty quickly out of focus and out of consciousness, so the three-year commitment is one that supports a long-term fix or a long-term movement toward a fix."
Jonathan Bernstein, president of the national consultancy Bernstein Crisis Management, said the Ravens did the right thing by going to House of Ruth and asking what was needed rather than starting with a grand gesture.
"They will need to walk their talk by implementing internal education and standards for their players after receiving guidance from the House of Ruth," he said. "The Ravens could be setting an important precedent not only for NFL teams, but for all of professional sports."
Timmins said the team's $600,000 donation will go directly to House of Ruth services such as emergency shelters, counseling, child therapy, legal services and the organization's gateway group program for abusers.
In the coming months, she said, players and other representatives will appear at events for the House of Ruth's "Man Up!" campaign, designed to educate men on partner abuse and urge them to hold each other accountable.
Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun