Ray Rice, the former Baltimore Running Back, has appealed his indefinite suspension from the NFL. This move could affect the future of not only Rice’s career, but potentially, the future of the NFL. Recently, an arbiter in the appeal ruled that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell should testify at the appeal hearing. This testimony could have an effect, not only on Rice’s appeal, but also, potentially, on Goodell’s future.
In order to understand the importance of Goodell’s testimony, and the potential effects it could have, it’s important to understand the timeline of the events surrounding Rice’s suspension. In February, video surface of Rice dragging his unconscious girlfriend out of an elevator in Las Vegas. At the time, it was believed that this was the only video available of the incident. As a result, Goodell, under his authority as league commissioner, suspended Ray Rice for two games. However, in September, video from the elevator’s security camera was released. This video, showing Rice assaulting his girlfriend inside the elevator, led to calls for more punishment by the Ravens and the NFL. In response, the Ravens cut Rice, and the League suspended him indefinitely.
The NFL legal team tried to avoid having Goodell testify by offering to, instead, have either the NFL’s general counsel or vice-president of labor relations testify. Part of the League’s reluctance to let Goodell testify may have to do with his poor public image. In 2009 when testifying before the House Judiciary Committee about the NFL’s handling of brain injuries, Goodell’s answers were evasive, even when he was pressed to clarify by members of Congress. And when video surfaced of Rice assaulting his girlfriend in September, Goodell came under intense media scrutiny about his handling of the incident. While, at the time, Goodell’s suspension of Rice may have appeared to be in the best interest of the league, it could land the NFL in legal trouble.
The important takeaway from Goodell’s testimony will be what he knew and when he knew it. The main argument for overturning Rice’s suspension is that Goodell, even as commissioner, cannot punish a player twice for the same infraction. On the other hand, Goodell argues that the video which was released in September constituted new information, and thus allowed him to increase the penalty against Rice. However, this argument would be undercut if the testimony of Goodell and others indicate that he did, as some have alleged, have knowledge of the second tape when he originally handed Rice a two game suspension. Essentially, if Goodell was aware of and had seen the second tape, it could provide grounds for overturning Rice’s indefinite suspension. More troubling for the League, it could land the NFL in legal trouble. Though the NFL bylaws give the commissioner wide latitude to act “in the best interest” of football, this power is not unchecked. Courts will generally not limit a professional sports commissioner’s exercise of authority, as long as it is in accordance with the league’s bylaws. No one disputes that Goodell had the authority to indefinitely suspend Rice, regardless of whether Rice himself was in legal trouble for assaulting his wife. However, if it is true, as the NFL Players Association argues on Rice’s behalf, that the commissioner should not be able to punish a player twice for the same violation, then Goodell could be in trouble.
While Goodell has never excelled under intense public scrutiny, his future, and to some extent, the future of the League, could be affected by his testimony in the Ray Rice appeal. Only after hearing Goodell’s testimony will it become clear if Goodell was acting within his authority as commissioner, or whether he will have tougher issues to face than mounting PR challenges.
*Jaime C. Garcia is a second year student at Wake Forest University School of Law. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Government and a Bachelor of Science in Communication Studies from the University of Texas at Austin. Upon graduation he intends to practice corporate litigation.