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NFL needs to learn lesson from Ray Rice case

NFL needs to learn lesson from Ray Rice case
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell fumbled through the Ray Rice case. (Andrew Weber / USA Today Sports)

Former Ravens running back Ray Rice has been released from disciplinary limbo by arbitrator Barbara S. Jones, which means that – at least theoretically – he could sign with an NFL team today and resume his football career.

That career will never be quite the same, of course, for a once-beloved player who squandered his reputation in one horrible moment of domestic violence. The NFL won't be quite the same either, but that will be a good thing if commissioner Roger Goodell got the very clear message that came out of the decision.

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It didn't really require a former federal court judge to figure out that the NFL's personal conduct policy is a confusing mess that needs to be cleaned up … or that the Rice domestic violence scandal should have been dealt with more decisively from the start.

Jones simply inserted some objectivity into the situation when she came to the same conclusion as just about everybody else.

Now, it's just a matter of where everyone – Rice, the NFL and an American public that has turned its face away from the scourge of domestic violence for far too long – goes from here.

Rice certainly hopes to find a team willing to give him a second chance, though the indefinite suspension that was struck down this week has consumed so much of the season that he might have to wait until 2015 for that opportunity. If so, his victory on appeal might be pyrrhic since it was believed that Goodell would have lifted the suspension after one season anyway once Rice successfully completed his court-ordered diversion program.

He is believed to be on track to do that, and maybe we'll hear more about his progress and his future when he and his family appear for an exclusive two-part television interview on NBC's Today Show with Matt Lauer on Monday and Tuesday.

It probably won't be a victory lap, though Jones' decision clearly was a sharp rebuke of Goodell's handling of the situation. Janay Rice already has told her story to ESPN. Rice's first public comments since the Sept. 8 release of the damning second elevator video figure to be carefully orchestrated by his handlers to display appropriate remorse and give the public and a future employer reason to believe he has faced his demons and is no danger to repeat that ugly incident.

Let's be honest. Nobody felt too comfortable saying that Rice was being unfairly victimized by a flawed disciplinary system after the second video went public, but institutional discipline has to be decisive and consistent to maintain the credibility of the organization involved. It was pretty clear to everyone that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's arbitrary handling of the situation violated the prohibition in football's labor agreement that protects players from being disciplined more than once for the same offense.

It wasn't easy to turn Rice into a victim after the whole world saw him knock his then-fiancee unconscious that February night in Atlantic City, but the NFL managed to accomplish that with its laughably light two-game suspension and then its heavy-handed reaction to the video proof of what league officials had known for seven months.

We don't need any further review, but let's go there anyway: Rice was suspended for two games after he was charged with aggravated assault for that knockout punch and the league received so much flak for its soft and inconsistent approach to domestic violence that Goodell announced a new policy in August that called for a six-game suspension for a first offense. Goodell knew at that time he could not apply that penalty to Rice without violating the collective bargaining agreement's double jeopardy clause, but still decided to up the ante when the second video deservedly sparked widespread public outrage.

The Ravens released Rice as suspicion mounted that the NFL and the Ravens knew more than they were letting on about the content of the second video.

That's a subject for another day and another grievance, but the real question remaining is whether Rice's reinstatement will really make any difference. He has sat through more than half the NFL season after having a very subpar year in 2013, so there doesn't appear to be a lot of incentive for anyone to sign him before the offseason. The baggage he's carrying is going to make him a tough sell while the scandal is still making big headlines.

He'll should get a chance to rebuild his career and do whatever he can to repair his reputation. That's only fair. He has, so far, met the requirements of his diversionary program and seems willing to go the extra mile to help other young men before they fall into the same trap.

Though the incident was egregious, Rice's clean prior record and work in the community should count for something as he attempts to put nine months of regret and public scorn behind him.

No one is obligated to feel sorry for him. He did what he did and he has paid a heavy price – at least in terms of his football career. What needs to come out of this is a far more transparent and coherent NFL disciplinary system that sends a very clear message to players that a variety of serious offenses will be dealt with in a tough and consistent manner.

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Maybe it's not possible to define the exact punishment for every possible degree of every possible offense, but the NFL and the players union need hammer to out a clearly-defined disciplinary system with specific minimum and maximum punishments for a wide range of misbehaviors.

There might still be some wiggle-room in some situations, but what happened in the league's handling of the Rice case – like what happened in that elevator -- should never happen again.

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

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