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Ozzie Newsome's candor could play a big role in the result of Ray Rice's appeal

Ozzie Newsome's candor could play a big role in the result of Ray Rice's appeal
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun)

Former Ravens coach Brian Billick always knew the explanation if he and the team's longtime general manager, Ozzie Newsome, were at odds.

It was Billick's fault.

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Billick made this observation not to highlight his own fallibility but to illustrate the respect Newsome garners within the Ravens organization and around the NFL. In a job that sometimes requires him to bring harsh ends to mens' dreams, Newsome has won the admiration of players, agents and fellow executives with his combination of directness, decisiveness and empathy.

Partially because of his candor, Newsome now finds himself in one of the more uncomfortable spots of his 36-year run as an NFL player and executive. According to sources with knowledge of Ray Rice's appeal hearing in New York earlier this month, Newsome became a key witness when he testified he had heard Rice tell league commissioner Roger Goodell he'd hit his then-fiancee at an Atlantic City casino.

Goodell had previously said Rice's description of the incident, during a June 16 NFL disciplinary hearing, was "ambiguous."

Because of a gag order from the presiding arbitrator, former U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones, we don't know exactly who said what during Rice's two-day appeal hearing, where Goodell also testified.

But it's conceivable Newsome's testimony could help Rice gain immediate reinstatement, if Jones agrees with Rice's contention that he received two punishments — a two-game suspension, then an indefinite ban — for the same offense. Jones is expected to deliver her ruling within the next week.

Newsome has said all along Rice didn't lie, though he also said the footage TMZ posted of Rice striking Janay Palmer was worse than he expected. The Ravens general manager has faced stinging public criticism in his own right for standing by Rice after he learned the player had struck his then-fiancee.

Regardless, those who've known Newsome over his long tenure say it's hardly unusual for him to speak an inconvenient or uncomfortable truth.

"When he tells you something, even if it's something you don't want to hear, it's spot on," said longtime NFL agent Tony Agnone, who met Newsome when Newsome was still assembling a Hall of Fame playing career in Cleveland. "You never have to worry that it's not the truth or that he's trying to pull something. And that's not necessarily the case around the league, where telling half truths is kind of the norm."

Agnone said the reliability of Newsome's word has been a key factor in some players signing with the Ravens. He cited his current client, Ravens center Jeremy Zuttah, and former Ravens linebacker Jamie Sharper as examples.

Players respect Newsome because he was a great performer in the league and because he grasps their perspective, even when he's delivering bad news.

"He never tries to rip a guy's heart out," Agnone said. "He still understands what it was like from his playing days. And he's not a grudge holder. We have a ton of those in this league."

Former Ravens center Matt Birk recalled how, anytime the franchise fined a player, Newsome came to the locker room after practice to deliver the news in person.

"He didn't have to do that," said Birk, who now works for the NFL. "He could have sent a note. But that was Ozzie Newsome. He's a face-to-face guy."

Newsome is an unobtrusive presence, most often glimpsed by players during his thrice-daily walks on the treadmill in the team's weight room.

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Birk was fascinated by Newsome's gift for maintaining long-term relationships with strong-minded coaches such as Billick and John Harbaugh. He decided the general manager had a rare gift for being decisive without asserting his ego.

"He's a huge part of the culture there," Birk said. "Always classy, confident and completely professional."

The Ravens declined comment for this story because of Jones' gag order.

But owner Steve Bisciotti spoke extensively about the importance of Newsome's character during an interview about the general manager last year.

"Our reputation precedes us, and part of it is that Ozzie's viewed as a straight shooter with these guys," Bisciotti said. "He's somebody that they can look up to. With most of these guys … it's 'I hope I never see the GM.' With Ozzie, it's the exact opposite. They build relationships with him. When they're struggling with family issues, they're knocking on his door as much as the coach."

Bisciotti said Newsome's mix of compassion and candor is perhaps on best display when he's cutting players in the last weeks of training camp.

"He's honest," the Ravens owner said. "He might say to them, 'It's a lot different here in the pros, and a lot of you guys find that out the hard way. And I don't think you have the speed or the physicality or whatever. I'm not telling you to get out of the business; I'm just saying I don't know that you're going to stick with an NFL roster.'

"And that's a hard thing for a guy to say. But Ozzie says, 'I'm not worried about that. I might hurt their feelings, but I'm not going to say it in a way that they're going to call me a jerk.'"

Newsome made the phone call to Rice when the Ravens released their former star Sept. 8, a few hours after TMZ posted video of him striking Palmer. He described it as "one of the hardest phone calls I have ever made."

Even as a national debate exploded over what NFL officials knew about the Rice case and when, Newsome stuck to his statement that Rice hadn't lied to him.

"Ray and I didn't discuss details beyond that, because in my mind if he hit her, no matter the circumstances or explanation, he needed to own the situation," Newsome said in a Sept. 22 statement released by the Ravens. "I immediately focused on Ray taking responsibility and making amends. I later said Ray didn't lie to me because he told me he hit her, and that is what the video later showed — although the video was much more violent than what I had pictured."

Newsome also told The Sun that, though he was present for part of Rice's June 16 disciplinary hearing, Rice and Palmer had a separate meeting with Goodell. The truth of what happened in that session? Newsome said he did not know.

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