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As Rice case unfolds, Ravens, NFL act as if they still have something to hide

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome was told he must testify in the November arbitration hearing that will determine whether Ray Rice's increased suspension violated the clause in the NFL's labor agreement that protects a player from being disciplined twice for the same offense.
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome was told he must testify in the November arbitration hearing that will determine whether Ray Rice's increased suspension violated the clause in the NFL's labor agreement that protects a player from being disciplined twice for the same offense. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

It should be apparent to just about everybody by now that the NFL, with its uneven handling of the Ray Rice domestic-violence scandal, set a trap for itself and keeps falling into it.

The two latest developments only add fuel to the widely held belief that both the league and the Ravens have been less than transparent in their words and actions since first learning of Rice's brutal assault on his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, in February.

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First, earlier this week, according to league sources and media reports, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Ravens president Dick Cass and Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome were told they must testify in the November arbitration hearing that will determine whether Rice's increased suspension violated the clause in the sport's labor agreement that protects a player from being disciplined twice for the same offense.

On Friday, former federal prosecutor Richard Craig Smith told the Associated Press that the NFL and the Ravens are not cooperating with a players' union investigation into the handling of the case.

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Neither of these revelations would be particularly damning if this were some garden-variety dispute between the NFL and the National Football League Players Association. It was no surprise that former U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones, who will arbitrate Rice's appeal, decided that she would like to hear from Goodell and Ravens officials during the hearing scheduled for Nov. 5-6.

It also is no surprise that the NFL would not be eager to cooperate with a competing private investigation when it has commissioned its own probe of the circumstances that led to the dramatic increase in Rice's punishment.

But there was never anything garden variety about this situation and the national controversy that exploded after the second elevator video was released last month. The NFL was left scrambling to prove the Ravens' and its own ignorance of the contents of the video when Goodell originally imposed only a two-game suspension for the incident.

It was during this period that Goodell decided to hire former FBI Director Robert Mueller to perform an "independent" investigation and pledged during a mea culpa news conference that the league was committed to transparency. Which is why it's fair to raise an eyebrow at a couple of perfunctory procedural announcements concerning the appeal hearing and the dueling investigations.

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Goodell called into question that commitment almost immediately when he dodged a number of questions during that news conference, and it was obvious that no one involved on the ownership side was eager to say anything about anything. In fact, Mueller's investigation provided a perfect excuse to be anything but transparent.

Though Goodell said all along that he would testify at the appeals hearing if ordered, the fact that he, Cass and Newsome were essentially compelled to appear at the hearing leaves the appearance — correct or not — that they didn't want to testify. Never mind that all have been quoted multiple times answering the questions that likely would be asked of them — and that all aren't likely to answer differently now.

The same applies to their apparent reluctance to cooperate with the union's investigation. There is no reason to think that anyone involved on the ownership side would give anything to Smith that they would not give to Mueller, so cooperating essentially would assist the union in pre-empting the NFL's investigation.

It's not reasonable to expect Goodell and his army of lawyers to allow themselves to be outflanked in that manner, but, again, Goodell and the Ravens were the ones who made such a point of insisting that they were being fully transparent in their retelling of what happened between the time they learned of the incident and their strong reaction to the second video. They promised to be transparent in the future. It's hard to wriggle out of a semantic trap like that.

So while it might not be fair to think they should have just given the union anything it requested, it is fair for the union to exploit their reluctance for the purpose of portraying Rice as the victim of an arbitrary system that meted out additional discipline upon him to deflect public outrage over the ugly video.

This could be an important moment in the history of a players' union that was steamrollered by the NFL into accepting the so-called "Goodell Doctrine," which has long allowed the commissioner wide discretion in disciplining players with or without full adjudication of an alleged bad act by a union member.

In this high-profile case, it is obvious to all that Goodell levied punishment against Rice aware that, according to the original police report, Rice struck his now-wife and "rendered her unconscious." Goodell then revised the league's domestic-abuse policy to increase the penalty for a first domestic assault to a minimum suspension of six games, which he did not apply to Rice, and subsequently suspended Rice indefinitely upon seeing the second video.

The union is right to desire a more balanced and certain disciplinary system than the one that singled out Rice so dramatically after years of ambivalence to domestic violence. It seems likely the arbitrator will rule that the enhanced discipline constituted a second punishment in violation of Article 46 of the collective bargaining agreement and lift Rice's indefinite suspension.

That wouldn't really change anything, because Rice will not be returning to the Ravens, and it's highly unlikely any other team will sign him this year. But it would send a strong message that even the NFL commissioner has to follow his own rules.

Who knows? It might even make the league a little more transparent.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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