"We have to remain consistent," Goodell told reporters while in Canton, Ohio, for Pro Football Hall of Fame weekend. "We can't just make up the discipline. It has to be consistent with other cases, and it was."
Goodell's comments were his first on the subject since the NFL announced Rice's discipline July 24. In addition to being suspended for two games, Rice was fined $529,000. However, the punishment was widely criticized as too lenient given the allegations that the 27-year-old running back faced and the length of other suspensions Goodell has given for drugs and other off-the-field issues.
"Our policy is clear," Goodell said. "We have a very firm policy that domestic violence is not acceptable in the NFL and that there will be consequences for that."
Rice was charged with felony aggravated assault after he allegedly struck his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, who is now his wife, and knocked her unconscious during a physical altercation in the elevator of an Atlantic City, N.J., casino in February. He ultimately was accepted into a diversionary program, avoiding jail time and potentially getting the charge taken off his record.
Goodell said he understands the negative response to the suspension but he appeared to grow agitated when he was asked about the notion that a player involved in a domestic violence incident is suspended for two games, while other players get a four-game ban for smoking marijuana.
"You have to deal with some facts," he said. "When we have a drug program that is collectively bargained and it has a step process, it takes four incidents before you actually reach a suspension in a drug-related case. You have to respond to facts here. A lot of people are voicing their opinion, but it's important to understand that this is a young man that made a terrible mistake that is inconsistent with what we're all about. We dealt with it in a serious manner, and we're very confident that this young man understands where he is and what he needs to do going forward."
Goodell praised Rice for his response to the incident. Rice and his wife have been getting therapy and counseling.
"I think what's important here is Ray is taking responsibility," Goodell said. "He's been accountable for his actions. He recognizes he made a horrible mistake and it's unacceptable, by his standards and our standards. And he's got to work to re-establish himself. And the criminal justice system, as you know, put him in a diversionary program with no discipline. We felt it was appropriate to have discipline and to continue the counseling programs and to continue our educational work. I was also very impressed with Ray in the sense that Ray is not only accepting this issue but he's saying, 'I was wrong,' and he's saying, 'I want to make a powerful difference in this area.'"
Rice spoke to reporters yesterday and answered questions about the incident for the first time. He apologized to his wife, who was watching the news conference from the balcony above, and vowed that the couple will become advocates against domestic violence when the time is right.
Goodell acknowledged that Rice's reputation – he has been one of the most active Ravens in the community during his time in Baltimore – and the fact that he was a first-time offender influenced the decision.
"I think I have the opportunity as the commissioner to be able to hear directly from him, and that's helpful to me and important for me to do that," Goodell said. "What I want to see is success stories. I want to see people, when they make a mistake, I want to see them take responsibility and be accountable for it and make a difference going forward. I hope that's what Ray Rice is going to do."