With Games Over: Monday is about to become Roger Goodell’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

ESPN’s blockbuster story is about to explode.

Rice case: purposeful misdirection by team, scant investigation by NFL.

The seven-month scandal that is threatening Roger Goodell’s future as NFL commissioner began with an unexpected phone call in the early morning hours on a Saturday in February.

Just hours after running back Ray Rice knocked out his then-fiancée with a left hook at the Revel Casino Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey, the Baltimore Ravens’ director of security, Darren Sanders, reached an Atlantic City police officer by phone. While watching surveillance video — shot from inside the elevator where Rice’s punch knocked his fiancée unconscious — the officer, who told Sanders he just happened to be a Ravens fan, described in detail to Sanders what he was seeing.

Sanders quickly relayed the damning video’s play-by-play to team executives in Baltimore, unknowingly starting a seven-month odyssey that has mushroomed into the biggest crisis confronting a commissioner in the NFL’s 94-year history.

“Outside the Lines” interviewed more than 20 sources over the past 11 days — team officials, current and former league officials, NFL Players Association representatives and associates, advisers and friends of Rice — and found a pattern of misinformation and misdirection employed by the Ravens and the NFL since that February night.

After the Feb. 15 incident in the casino elevator, Ravens executives — in particular owner Steve Bisciotti, president Dick Cass and general manager Ozzie Newsome — began extensive public and private campaigns pushing for leniency for Rice on several fronts: from the judicial system in Atlantic County, where Rice faced assault charges, to commissioner Goodell, who ultimately would decide the number of games Rice would be suspended from this fall, to within their own building, where some were arguing immediately after the incident that Rice should be released.

The Ravens also consulted frequently with Rice’s Philadelphia defense attorney, Michael J. Diamondstein, who in early April had obtained a copy of the inside-elevator video and told Cass: “It’s f—ing horrible.” Cass did not request a copy of the video from Diamondstein but instead began urging Rice’s legal team to get Rice accepted into a pretrial intervention program after being told some of the program’s benefits. Among them: It would keep the inside-elevator video from becoming public.

For its part, the NFL — which in other player discipline cases has been able to obtain information that’s been sealed by court order — took an uncharacteristically passive approach when it came to gathering evidence, opening itself up to widespread criticism, allegations of inconsistent approaches to player discipline and questions about whether Goodell gave Rice — the corporate face of the Baltimore franchise — a light punishment as a favor to his good friend Bisciotti. Four sources said Ravens executives, including Bisciotti, Cass and Newsome, urged Goodell and other league executives to give Rice no more than a two-game suspension, and that’s what Goodell did on July 24.

Most sources spoke with “Outside the Lines” on the condition of anonymity, citing the NFL’s just-launched, self-described independent investigation by Robert S. Mueller III, the former FBI chief, which is being overseen by John Mara, the New York Giants’ owner, and Art Rooney II, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ co-owner. Mara and Rooney are close confidants of Goodell’s. The interviews, viewed together, paint a picture of a league and a franchise whose actions — and inaction — combined to conceal — or ignore — the graphic violence of Rice’s assault. When evidence of it surfaced anyway, the NFL and the Ravens quickly shifted gears and simultaneously attempted to pin the blame on Rice and his alleged lack of truthfulness with Goodell about what had happened inside the elevator.

Greg Aiello, a spokesman for the NFL, on Friday afternoon did not answer any written questions submitted to Goodell and the league by “Outside the Lines.” “Mr. Mueller is in the process of conducting his investigation into the pursuit and handling of evidence in the Ray Rice domestic violence incident,” Aiello said. “His report will be made public.” He declined further comment. The Ravens responded to various questions Friday and disputed the “Outside the Lines” reporting, saying it was not their initial understanding Rice had knocked out Janay “with a punch.” As for Cass working with Diamondstein, the Ravens said Cass made it clear that “Ray and his lawyer should proceed based on their assessment of what was in Ray’s best interests.” The team declined to make Sanders available, saying he was traveling.

Later Friday, the Ravens released the following statement to the general media: “The ESPN.com ‘Outside the Lines’ article contains numerous errors, inaccuracies, false assumptions and, perhaps, misunderstandings. The Ravens will address all of these next week in Baltimore after our trip to Cleveland for Sunday’s game against the Browns.”

The Rices, through their friends, declined to comment, as did Diamondstein.

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