Roger Goodell had this coming to him, this damning 17-page report that hit him like a linebacker blitzing from the blind side. The commissioner of the National Football League came up so small and weak in initially handing Ray Rice a two-game suspension that he deserved to have a former federal judge reinstate the running back and announce to the world that Goodell was full of it.
The commissioner indefinitely suspended Rice in September for his violent assault on the woman who would become his wife because, he said, Rice had given him an account at odds with what appeared in the video TMZ aired of the February incident inside an Atlantic City, New Jersey, casino elevator. Goodell said Rice "misled" him in June before the first penalty was announced, and that's why he gave himself a do-over and lowered the boom.
This is what former U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones said on page two of her ruling that freed the fired Baltimore Ravens star to resume his NFL career with any team that would have him:
"Because, after careful consideration of all of the evidence, I am not persuaded that Rice lied to, or misled, the NFL at his June interview, I find that the indefinite suspension was an abuse of discretion and must be vacated."
An abuse of discretion. As much as sports commissioners prefer that bad news breaks on Friday afternoons (never mind the Friday afternoon after Thanksgiving), when people are busy fleeing the office and diving into their weekend plans, Goodell couldn't escape the magnitude of this rebuke.
The commissioner gave Rice only two games after seeing the first video -- the outside-the-elevator video -- despite the horrifying images of the running back dragging his unconscious fiancée, Janay Palmer, and dropping her face-first to the floor. Goodell admitted he "didn't get it right" and introduced tougher domestic policy measures -- a six-game ban for the first offense, a potential lifetime ban for the second -- only after outrage from fans, sponsors and the news media forced him to act.
Jones' report said Goodell called Rice after that policy change and made it clear to him the terms of his punishment wouldn't change. But when the second video surfaced, showing the very violence any reasonable witness would've imagined by watching the first video, Goodell knew he was in deep, deep trouble.
The report said he immediately gathered his aides, that they all checked their notes and that they "made sure all of us had the same recollection of what [Rice] said on June 16." Goodell and other league officials present in that meeting decided, according to the report, "that Rice misled them by stating that he had slapped rather than hit Mrs. Rice in the elevator and that he tried to minimize the force of his blow by claiming she knocked herself out by falling into the elevator handrail."
But in reviewing contemporaneous notes made by Goodell and those officials, Jones didn't find enough evidence to back up those claims. She said that the "vagueness" of Goodell's recollection (and that of senior aide Adolpho Birch) "further diminished" their testimony, and that the union official present at the June meeting, Heather McPhee, provided more detailed notes directly quoting Rice as saying, "And then I hit her." McPhee was also "emphatic" that Rice never said his fiancée had "knocked herself out."
On page nine of her ruling, Jones wrote: "The sole issue in this matter is whether what Rice told the Commissioner and other league representatives about the assault at their June 16, 2014, meeting was 'a starkly different sequence of events' than what was captured on the 'inside-the-elevator' video. It was not."
Game, set, overmatched. Ray Rice testified that he physically demonstrated to Goodell how he'd struck with his vicious left hook the woman he would marry, and Jones found him credible. More credible than she found the man who gave Rice such a pathetic penalty in the first place.
Of course, if Goodell were most interested in the truth five months ago, he never would've met with Rice in the company of the woman he attacked. The NFL didn't want to know all the details of how Palmer was knocked cold in that Atlantic City elevator, and it's all there in black and white. On page 10 of the report, the victim speaks of Rice's meeting in June with Goodell and says nobody from the league "had asked [Rice] for specific details about what went on in the elevator."
Palmer did twice slap at Rice in what was an alcohol-fueled argument, a fact that changes nothing about Rice's criminal and cowardly response. But so many questions remain about how and why Goodell acted the way he did, questions that must be addressed in the investigation now being run by Robert Mueller, the former FBI director out of a league-friendly law firm.
Questions like this one: Despite denials to the contrary, did Goodell and/or senior NFL officials see that second video, and, if not, how is it possible they didn't?
"At the time of the June 16 meeting," reads page four of the Jones report, "the NFL also knew that there was a camera inside the elevator and thought it was likely that there was a video from that camera. Various sources, including NFL security, had reported the existence of such a video."
If the league didn't see that second video, it just means the league didn't want to see that second video. And if Goodell is telling the truth on this front, so what? He saw the first video. What in the world did he think happened inside the elevator to leave Palmer in that state?
As it turns out, Rice told him pretty much exactly what happened that night before he was benched for two games and another week's pay. Goodell's first instinct was to treat this domestic violence offense as something of a speeding ticket, and only when the case blew up on him did he find the kind of religion that had landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 2012 behind this headline: "The Enforcer: How far will NFL commissioner Roger Goodell go to protect the game he loves?"
How far did Roger Goodell go in the Rice matter to protect Roger Goodell? He needed another fall guy for that two-game penalty, and before Adrian Peterson came along and allowed him to flex his atrophied muscles, Goodell figured he could blame an admitted batterer for misleading him.
Barbara S. Jones figured otherwise. The former federal judge found that one major figure in this case did do some misleading, and his name wasn't Ray Rice.