Meet Heather McPhee, The Woman Who Took On The NFL -- And Won
Just outside the conference room on the sixth floor of the NFL's Park Avenue offices, Ray Rice was nervous, fidgeting as he went over what he was going to say to the league's commissioner.
His NFL Players Association attorney, Heather McPhee, had heard Rice talk about the night of Feb. 15 many times. He had always used the word "hit" to describe what he did to his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer. So on June 16, as he prepared to explain what happened to commissioner Roger Goodell and the other men who would weigh his discipline, McPhee told Rice that as painful as it might be, he should continue to be honest about what happened in the elevator.
But before Rice walked into the room, Baltimore Ravens president Dick Cass came over to Rice and McPhee. As McPhee would later recount under oath, she said Cass told Rice: "Ray, I think everything Heather said is absolutely right, and I think there are different ways to express what happened that night. I think it would be fair to say -- it would be truthful if you say -- that you laid your hands on her."
McPhee laughed and said that sounded like "something an evangelist would say." She told Rice and Cass "laying hands" didn't really describe the punch that sent Palmer to the floor. It was a punch -- and a punch that, over the next few months, would ignite a national conversation about domestic violence and the NFL's role in investigating and punishing players.
As she reflects on that day and everything that has happened since, McPhee, a down-to-earth daughter who's proud to be the child of a teacher and a baseball coach, is quick to say she doesn't think Cass was trying to mislead anyone. But he was softening the language, and he was Rice's boss.
That is why, when the informal meeting with Goodell started a few minutes later, McPhee listened closely to how Rice described what happened in the elevator. She wrote down the sentence, "And then I hit her." In her notes, McPhee used quotes around the sentence and underlined it twice.
Those notes, from a virtually unknown associate general counsel, just might have been the reason Rice could sign with a team today, while Goodell's reputation is in desperate need of repair.
Deep in the chronology of one of the most high-profile domestic violence incidents ever, McPhee's name will appear as an unlikely but pivotal heavyweight. It's not much of an overstatement to say she single-handedly won Rice's appeal.
So who is this normally behind-the-scenes, midlevel attorney at the NFLPA?
McPhee is a 44-year-old who laughs easily about how her 8-year-old nephew thinks she's cool because she gets to hang out with NFL players. She is forthright when she needs to be and well respected, both in the NFLPA and at the NFL. Even Cass, when asked about McPhee at a domestic violence awareness event at Ravens team headquarters in late January, had nothing but nice things to say about her.
"She's a good lawyer," he said. "I enjoy working with her. She's very protective of the players' interests."
McPhee and her colleague, Teri Patterson, were two members of the overhauled staff that was brought in by newly elected NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith in 2009. Smith snagged three attorneys, including McPhee, from his old firm, Patton Boggs, a powerful lobbying firm in Washington. He also snagged Patterson, an attorney and acquaintance from international firm Latham & Watkins, also based in D.C.
Both said Smith made it clear he didn't want yes men or yes women on his staff, so there have been discussions, debates and disagreements over the years. Both Patterson and McPhee have been intimately involved in the 2011 CBA, player pensions, the new drug policy and, now, player discipline and domestic violence policy through the Rice case.
"The clients of these firms are basically large corporations, and it's such a luxury to be able to meet the players where they are and in their ecosystem," McPhee said. "It is a radically different day-to-day experience, and I love it. It's the perfect combination of having a true mission. None of us are here curing cancer, solving world peace, but in our little world, young men are navigating against a 10-billion-dollar business. And we help them navigate that process. I love it."
A quick refresher on the Rice dispute: On Sept. 8, when TMZ published the video showing Rice punching Palmer, the NFL immediately issued an indefinite suspension for Rice. He'd already been disciplined by Goodell in July, with a two-game suspension for the elevator incident. When that first punishment was thrown out in favor of the new penalty, the NFL implied Rice had not been honest with Goodell in June.
Rice and the NFLPA objected and said Rice had said from the outset that he punched Palmer. In September, they filed an appeal of the indefinite suspension. McPhee and Rice were among the witnesses scheduled to testify in front of Judge Barbara Jones, who'd been tabbed as the arbiter because Goodell was also a witness.
The case began in early November. In court, McPhee detailed her side of the story. She testified that in June she argued forcefully with the NFL that the two-game suspension was warranted, given past suspensions for similar incidents. Still, Goodell and Birch testified that McPhee had said in Goodell's office that what happened inside the elevator wasn't that bad. In his view, the subsequent video contradicted that June meeting.
According to a transcript of Goodell's testimony obtained by ESPN senior writer Don Van Natta and "Outside The Lines," the commissioner said Rice told him he'd slapped Palmer, and McPhee lobbied hard on his behalf.
"Heather spoke very impassionately," Goodell said in his testimony. "She talked about the fact that this video is not what it appears to be. We pressed her. [NFL executive vice president] Adolpho [Birch], I think, pressed her on that issue. She continued to say, 'I know this case is not what it appears to be. The media is making more of it than what it is. It doesn't appear what it is.'"
McPhee vigorously objects to how Goodell and Birch framed those early conversations.
"After I learned that they supposedly thought that during the June 16 meeting I had said the incident was 'not as bad' as it had been portrayed in media, I was extremely disappointed that they had clearly not listened to what I actually said," McPhee said. "I was very troubled that they may have used that egregious misrepresentation [or] misunderstanding of my remarks to justify the position the league had taken."
Jones weighed the notes and testimony of the NFL executives against those of McPhee and Rice. Goodell had scant records of the June meeting, and Birch had written down only two words after listening to Rice that day. "Bottle service," he jotted down in reference to what Palmer and Rice had been drinking.
In her ruling, Jones ultimately sided with McPhee's version of that June meeting. In her decision, she wrote: "More persuasive to me are McPhee's more detailed and careful notes, which emphasize the exact words Rice said with quotation marks."
It was an enormous victory for Rice and the NFLPA, and it seriously damaged Goodell's credibility on player discipline, which he has overseen since becoming the commissioner in 2006. For the first time, McPhee's name began to surface in the media as a deciding factor in the case.
"My reaction to it was that it was the right call," Patterson said. "I know Heather personally, so I didn't have a question as to whether her notes were credible or whether she'd said something just to advance the cause rather than the truth."
Since the win, McPhee has gone back to her job as an attorney at the NFLPA, without nearly as much fanfare. The first question many people ask her is: How do you, as a woman, represent these men who are accused of violence against women?
"People have remarked to both Teri and I, because we're women, they ask this in particular," McPhee said, "and because I'm general counsel, I am charged with protecting the players' rights."
Added Patterson: "While the subject of domestic violence is a very sensitive one and not one that's easy to discuss with our constituency of men, since we've already set the course for talking to them about other sensitive issues like their health, addiction and depression, it's really not as much of a nonstarter as people think it is."
For McPhee, whether the issue is Rice's expectation of fair process or getting NFL families the resources they need to transition from the NFL to the next phase, it's all part of her work.
"It's one day they go from being an amateur athlete and then, boom, one day you are a widget in a 10-billion-dollar industry," McPhee said. "Every single one of them is a disposable widget, and we are here to protect them."