In Judge Barbara Jones' Friday afternoon ruling, by which she vacated Ray Rice's second (and indefinite) suspension from the NFL, Jones offered a disturbing view into the league's disciplinary process by way of this telling anecdote: When the league's top brass gathered for Ray Rice's initial June 16 hearing, notepads were out. Yet as Rice described the events of the evening when he assaulted Janay Rice, his then-fiancé -- departing from the club, their argument, the elevator scene and the aftermath -- Adolpho Birch, the NFL's senior VP of labor policy and government affairs, and a lawyer by training, wrote down just two words.
That was it.
Birch noted merely that the couple got bottle service that night, before everything else unfolded -- though it was everything else that the league would ultimately base its discipline on.
This is the power of neutral arbitration -- asking Birch, commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association attorney Heather McPhee to hand in their notes and then comparing them side by side to ferret out the truth.
Jones found Goodell and Birch to be vague in their note-taking and their testimony. The I-can't-recall route might work in a news conference, but not with Jones. Neither did the NFL's inference that Rice suggested Janay "knocked herself out" by hitting the elevator railing as she fell from the punch.
"It is immaterial," Jones wrote. "Whether the blow itself or hitting the railing knocked Mrs. Rice unconscious, the cause was the hit."
Jones cuts through all the obfuscation and half-remembrances to the heart of the matter. Then, Jones offers a pretty stunning admission: If the league had set an indefinite suspension from the start, she'd probably have found in its favor.
"If this were a matter where the first discipline imposed was an indefinite suspension, an arbitrator would be hard pressed to find that the Commissioner had abused his discretion," Jones wrote. "But that is not the case before me."
And this is the issue. A decade of inadequate suspensions went into the formulation of Ray Rice's initial two-game discipline. Trying to come down on Rice as a way of refuting that legacy or avoiding the public condemnation that it sparks is misplaced energy.
This isn't just Goodell's issue; it extends to the team level. Jemele Hill just wrote a piece with Janay Rice in which Rice says the Ravens set up the news conference for the couple and then gave Janay a script.
A profit-making enterprise should not be writing a script for a victim of domestic violence at a news conference -- even if she steadfastly rejects that label, as is her right.
The issue is, each time the NFL tries to justify the unjustifiable, it dredges up all the missteps and incompetence that led the league here in the first place. There is a lot of good work being done now in the league offices, but the NFL has to get out of its own way here.
At Goodell's first news conference after the Rice debacle, he opened a door to sharing the responsibility on player discipline. It would be smart for the league to make that concession in the wake of this botched case.
The NBA allows any player who is suspended to appeal that decision to a neutral arbitrator. In the NFL, that appeal (usually) gets kicked back to Goodell. Jones actually referenced the bounty case -- in which Goodell's discipline was also overturned by a neutral arbitrator.
Rice's indefinite suspension might not have been seen as overly harsh -- even by a neutral arbitrator such as Jones. The process, however, was flawed. As a result, the door is wide open for criticism of Goodell, Birch and the other men who tried to correct their own mistake by further punishing Rice.
Ray Rice will play in the NFL again, if he has enough talent that a team is ready to take the heat for signing him. There's no reason to think that won't happen. Look no further than Michael Vick, now on his second team after his conviction on charges related to dogfighting.
Even an aim as admirable as reducing the rate of domestic violence and sexual assault in the league and beyond needs to be attached to a system of discipline that is fair and measured.