What the Ravens knew

A retired federal judge's arbitration ruling in favor of former Ravens running back Ray Rice has reignited the firestorm surrounding the National Football League's seemingly arbitrary and inconsistent policies for disciplining its players for bad conduct off the field. But it is equally strongly an indictment of the Ravens' handling of the domestic abuse incident involving Mr. Rice and his then-fiancée, now wife, Janay Rice. Coupled with Ms. Rice's revelations during an interview Monday on NBC's Today Show about the team's involvement in a tone-deaf press conference she and Mr. Rice held at the Ravens' training facility in May, it paints a picture of an organization whose stated concern for the Rice family and for the issue of domestic violence generally was trumped at every step by its concern for the bottom line.

To recap: Early in the morning of Saturday, Feb. 15, both Rices were arrested after an altercation in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino. Within days, a police report confirmed that Mr. Rice had struck the then-Janay Palmer with his hand and knocked her unconscious. Video obtained by the website TMZ and released the following Wednesday showed footage from outside the elevator in which Mr. Rice dragged his fiancée's limp body into the hall. Ravens officials spoke with Mr. Rice during that week, and on Friday, coach John Harbaugh said he hadn't "seen anything that would remotely make me think" that Mr. Rice would not play for the team the following fall. He, General Manager Ozzie Newsome, team President Dick Cass and Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti all made statements in support of Mr. Rice over the following months.


Then TMZ obtained video of what happened inside the elevator. It showed the couple bickering and shoving, and then Mr. Rice delivering a blow to his fiancée's face, after which she dropped to the floor. Within hours, the Ravens released Mr. Rice from the team.

Why did the team embrace Mr. Rice one minute — literally; Mr. Bisciotti hugged him on the practice field after the NFL handed down its initial two-game suspension — and treat him like a pariah the next?

Mr. Bisciotti said immediately after its release that the video was "sickening and horrifying" and "changed everything." A few weeks later, after an ESPN article alleging that the team had engaged in a "pattern of misinformation and misdirection" after the incident, Mr. Bisciotti issued a rebuttal claiming that Mr. Rice had been less than truthful in his accounts to the team about what happened in the elevator.

And then we have this: Former U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones ruled Friday that the NFL's indefinite suspension of Mr. Rice was improper because he had not lied to the league during his interview with Commissioner Roger Goodell in June. The video, in Judge Jones' view, did not constitute new information and certainly not the "starkly different sequence of events" that Goodell's office had claimed.

Judge Jones recounts differing testimony during the arbitration hearing about what Mr. Rice had said during the meeting with Mr. Goodell in June, but among the crucial pieces of evidence pointing her toward believing that Mr. Rice had been honest at the time was the testimony of Mr. Newsome. According to Judge Jones' ruling, "Newsome testified that Rice told Commissioner Goodell that Rice had hit Mrs. Rice ... and that Rice had previously told Newsome the same." Judge Jones makes a trenchant observation when she notes, "any failure on the part of the league to understand the level of violence was not due to Rice's description of the event, but to the inadequacy of words to convey the seriousness of domestic violence. That the league did not realize the severity of the conduct without a visual record also speaks to their admitted failure in the past to sanction this type of conduct more severely."

The same can certainly be said of the Ravens. If it were not already abundantly clear that team officials had no idea how serious an act of violence had taken place, it was confirmed by Ms. Rice's interview with the Today show in which she said that the Ravens had suggested that she apologize for her role in the incident and gave her a general script to follow in doing so during the May press conference. Mr. Rice was also given talking points by the team, which he read awkwardly from his phone during the news conference. As such, his apology to the Ravens and the team's fans but not to his wife must be seen as reflecting at least as poorly on the team's priorities and judgment as on his. Indeed, his performance got a glowing review at the time from Mr. Cass.

In the months after Mr. Rice's arrest, team officials repeatedly said they would "let the facts determine the consequences." But we now know by no less authority than Mr. Newsome's testimony in Mr. Rice's arbitration hearing that the team had the facts long before the video was released. The issue was whether the team could salvage Mr. Rice's good-guy image and the revenue it produced — even by suggesting his wife apologize for being knocked out — and the only fact that mattered was whether the public would buy it.