More on Rice Suspension

Adolpho Birch, the NFL’s senior vice president for labor policy and government affairs was on with Mike and Mike yesterday, attempting to explain the Commissioner’s decision to suspend Ray Rice for two games. I think it’s fair to say that the response to Birch’s appearance was almost uniformly negative.

Olbermann deconstructs some of the many flaws in Birch’s reasoning here. Mike and Mike are not generally known for their hard hitting interview style, but they were both clearly perturbed by Birch’s unwillingness to address substantively the concerns over the length of the suspension. Each time Greenie pressed for details about the reasoning behind the ruling – including what precedents the commissioner was working from and what additional information he might have had to which the public was not privy, Birch demurred. Birch repeatedly circled back to the “privacy” of the process and the people involved while at the same time waxing indignant that *anyone* could suggest that the NFL was making anything but an ironclad statement about domestic violence. The effective message was clear: “we don’t care how angry everybody is. We don’t owe you an explanation. And how dare you question our commitment?”

I suppose there is no reason to have expected a league spokesman to have said anything different. But I do think Birch came across particularly badly because the league itself was not prepared for the intensity of the backlash about Rice’s punishment. The combination of defensiveness and obtuseness that characterized Birch’s appearance yesterday – on a show that is typically quite NFL friendly – reflects the degree to which the league has been caught off guard here.

None of this is likely to change the outcome in this case. But it’s fair to surmise that in the next such case to come down the pike, the Commissioner will think long and hard about a lengthier suspension.

Staying on the theme, Olbermann raised an important and disturbing point in the commentary linked to above. Olbermann described Goodell as guilty of a serious “ethical violation” in the conduct of the meeting he held in June to determine Rice’s punishment. As reported last Friday by Peter King, Rice’s wife, Janay Palmer Rice, told the commissioner that her husband had never done anything like that before and she reportedly asked Goodell to “go easy” on Rice. King says that fact, alongside other mitigating factors, may have contributed to Goodell’s decision.

Here’s the passage from King’s column that so disturbed Olbermann:

“Rice’s wife, a source said, made a moving and apparently convincing case to Goodell during a June 16 hearing at Goodell’s office in Manhattan—attended by Rice, GM Ozzie Newsome, club president Dick Cass of Baltimore; and Goodell, Jeff Pash and Adolpho Birch of the league—that the incident in the hotel elevator was a one-time event, and nothing physical had happened in their relationship before or since. She urged Goodell, the source said, to not ruin Rice’s image and career with his sanctions.”

Olbermann argued that it is a given in domestic abuse cases that you do not put the attacker in the same room as the abused. If Goodell really did conduct the meeting as described by King, “he destroyed the impartiality of the process.”

Olbermann went on to note that “one of the saddest truths of domestic violence is that the victim will often saying anything to prevent it from happening again.” As a result, KO insisted, Goodell ought to vacate the punishment he handed down and recuse himself from the process going forward.

When Goodell first took over the commissioner’s office in 2006, the league was receiving a lot of adverse publicity due to player conduct off the field. A year later, he announced a new personal conduct policy that gave him wide latitude to hand down significant suspensions for off the field behavior. Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones and Michael Vick were among the first players punished under the new policy (of course Vick also served nearly two years in a federal prison). The response of sports media to Goodell’s approach at the time was overwhelmingly positive, including from folks like Mike Greenberg. Goodell was applauded for his “toughness” and his willingness to “protect the shield” from the transgressions of bone-headed players.

Particularly because of the mishandling of bounty-gate, there is more widespread skepticism of the Commissioner’s assertion of his authority these days. The handling of Rice’s punishment, though, may represent the clearest case in which Goodell is simply in over his head. Consider that list of individuals he convened to discuss Rice’s punishment – not a single woman among them, nor anyone who can remotely be said to have any expert knowledge on the issue of domestic violence. Did Goodell consult with any such experts beforehand? Does he have any background relevant to the issue at all, that would give him insight into how partner violence typically unfolds or how it is best handled? Yes, the courts already passed judgment on Rice, but if Goodell is to be taken seriously as an arbiter of off-field conduct – a power he has famously arrogated to himself – doesn’t he have to know something about the conduct upon which he’s passing judgment?

It’s 2014 – the NFL needs to stop acting as if the old boys network is the sole font of all wisdom and insight about how best to adjudicate proper “conduct.” On this issue in particular, it’s proven embarrassingly out of step.

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