Rice transcript raises questions

The 631-page transcript of the Ray Rice suspension arbitration hearing offers a detailed description of Ray Rice's attack on his then-fiancée on Feb. 15 and of the NFL's attempts to address the fallout.

The evidence in the transcript, obtained by "Outside the Lines," and the decision of arbitrator Barbara Jones that the league's indefinite suspension of Rice was "arbitrary and capricious" raise legal questions on player discipline in the NFL and the actions of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and his staff of lawyers and security agents:

Q: What does the transcript reveal about Goodell and his response to the Rice episode?

A: Goodell was the first witness in the arbitration hearing, and the transcript shows that he was not prepared to testify, that his answers were vague and inconsistent, and that he did not seem to grasp important procedures established in the league's personal conduct policy.

His surprisingly imprecise answers to simple questions proved to be crucial to Jones' decision that Goodell was wrong when he imposed an "indefinite suspension" on Rice after viewing the inside-the-elevator video in early September. The transcript shows that Goodell could not decipher his own notes, telling the judge, "I have not seen them in several months." He was somewhat mystified by the appearance of the name of "Ray Lewis" in his notes. (Ravens officials told Goodell that they had placed Rice's locker next to Lewis's locker early in Rice's career hoping that Lewis would mentor Rice.)

Goodell also testified that, under the indefinite suspension, Rice could apply for reinstatement when he had a contract with a team even though the collective bargaining agreement states that a player under indefinite suspension may apply for reinstatement only after 11 months have elapsed since the suspension.

Q: What explanations did Goodell offer in his testimony for the first action he took -- the two-game suspension?

A: It was no surprise that Goodell testified that when he issued the two-day suspension he relied on his pre-disciplinary meeting with Rice and Rice's apparently sincere remorse. But the transcript shows that he also relied on some surprising and somewhat incomprehensible factors.

He first said that he relied on the decision of the prosecutor in Atlantic City to allow Rice to avoid a trial and punishment by entering a pretrial intervention program. Goodell said the decision of the prosecutor and the approval of a New Jersey judge "had a big influence on me."

Goodell was dealing with one of the stars of the NFL and an egregiously violent incident. The prosecutor and the judge in New Jersey were simply trying to dispose of one of hundreds of cases in their inventory. They were simply skimming the surface of the incident, and their conclusions had minimal, if any, value.

Then Goodell testified that he relied on a statement from NFLPA attorney Heather McPhee that the Rice incident "was not what it appeared to be." Goodell testified that he was impressed with her "confidence" as she made her statement. It is difficult to imagine why Goodell would place any reliance on an enigmatic statement from an advocate involved in the situation.

His misplaced reliance on New Jersey officials and an NFLPA lawyer led to the two-game suspension and the resulting flood of criticism. If Goodell had analyzed the situation more closely, he would have seen in the briefing book prepared by his staff that there was a camera in the elevator car and that he did not have the video of what happened in it. Instead of the two-day suspension, he could have issued an indefinite suspension to wait for more evidence, and, as arbitrator Jones said in her opinion, "an arbitrator would be hard pressed to find that the commissioner had abused his discretion."

Q: What explanation did Goodell offer for the indefinite suspension? Why did his explanation fail?

A: Goodell tried to persuade the arbitrator that Rice had "minimized" the violence of his attack on his then-fiancée and that the inside-the-elevator video showed a "starkly different" picture of what happened. In the pre-discipline meeting in June, Goodell testified, Rice told him "it was not the blow [in the elevator] that did any damage, it was actually the fact that she fell and knocked herself out." When he saw the video of the blow, according to the transcript, Goodell realized that "it was significantly different than the way it was described." It was, Goodell said, a "very serious blow that rendered her unconscious."

Instead of a slap and a fall in which Janay Rice "knocked herself out," the commissioner now saw a different picture. He quickly issued the indefinite suspension. The problem for Goodell and the league was that they had scant support for their assertion that Rice said it was just a "slap" and "minimized" what happened. In the pre-discipline hearing, Goodell was accompanied by three lawyers from the NFL staff. One of the lawyers, Kevin Manara, was to make notes of what happened in the meeting. His notes show that Rice said Janay "knocked herself out," but in his testimony, Manara made a damaging admission:

NFLPA lawyer Jeffrey Kessler: "Do you agree that not all of your notes are always verbatim?"

Manara: "Not all of my notes are verbatim of what was said in the meeting."

In addition to Manara's admission, NFLPA attorney McPhee testified later in the hearing that she also made notes of Rice's statement. In her notes, she testified, she wrote that Rice said, "And then I hit her." McPhee had quotes around the statement and underlined it twice. She explained she used the quotes and the underlining because she was "relieved" that Rice "did not try to soften or diminish what had happened. McPhee, in contrast to Goodell, was a cooperative and candid witness, testifying that she left these notes in a pile on her desk, never managed to file them and retrieved them from the pile for the hearing before Jones. When Jones compared the testimony of Manara and McPhee, she concluded that "I am not persuaded that [Manara's] notes reliably report that Rice used the words "knocked herself out."

Even with three lawyers helping him, including a full-time note taker, Goodell was unable to convince the arbitrator that he heard what he said he heard. McPhee, the only lawyer for Rice in the June 16 meeting, persuaded the arbitrator that Rice had not minimized anything, prompting the decision to reverse Goodell's indefinite suspension.

Q: What does the transcript reveal about the NFL's security staff?

A: Jeffrey Miller, the NFL's chief security officer, testified that he presides over a full-time staff of 13 experienced investigators, many of them former police officers and federal agents. He also described 70 private investigators who work under contract for the NFL, two in each NFL city and in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Hawaii. It's an investigative force that has been viewed with awe and respect for a long time, but Miller admitted that his agents had made no requests for the inside-the-elevator video from the local police, from the state police or from the casino. His testimony left the impression that the NFL security staff is more concerned with its "case management system" than with aggressive pursuit of real information.

Q: With so many inconsistencies and problems in its position on the indefinite suspension, why wouldn't the NFL negotiate a settlement with Rice and avoid the adverse decision in the arbitration?

A: There are three possible factors that prevented the NFL from negotiating a settlement with Rice. First, there is little doubt that Goodell sincerely believes that Rice minimized the incident in the elevator at the June 16 hearing and believes he was justified in imposing the indefinite suspension when the in-the-elevator video surfaced. If Goodell's lawyers, Adolpho Birch and Manara, had performed at a higher level, Goodell and the league might have been successful. Birch could have been more aggressive in his questioning of Rice at the pre-discipline hearing. More specific questions might have shown Rice to be minimizing. Manara should have been more meticulous in the notes he made during the hearing.

Second, Goodell, as the most powerful man in the sports industry, might have felt that his personal testimony would be enough to carry the day in the hearing. He might have rejected advice from his lawyers, telling them he would be able to explain everything to the arbitrator's satisfaction.

Third, the owners of the 32 teams in the NFL rarely settle any dispute, even when they are caught in the most egregious circumstances. For decades, the league has enjoyed brilliant legal representation from the firm of Covington & Burling, and the owners have won cases they should have lost. Each owner pays only 1/32nd of the legal bill, and the owners love to fight.