The Ray Rice Saga and Roger Goodell’s Authority

This is the first in an ongoing series of guest posts by those in academia and in the professional world of sport. Our first guest is Dr. Sungho Cho Ph.D/J.D., a Professor of Sport Law at Bowling Green State University. 

It has been one of the most tumultuous NFL seasons due to the TMZ video that made Ray Rice, at least momentarily, a jobless athlete in spite of his stellar performance statistics and a Super Bowl ring.

When Commissioner Roger Goodell initially imposed the two-game suspension on Rice for his personal misconduct in Atlantic City during the summer, various mass media pointed out that the level of punishment was not commensurate with the reprehensible conduct. For instance, an ESPN columnist, Jane McManus wrote that “[i]t’s a joke, and a bad one.” Fans wonder how Rice was suspended a couple of games while use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) or repeatedly smoking marijuana would result in much harsher penalties, i.e., automatic suspension for six-games and the entire season, respectively. After the TMZ video disclosed what really happened in the elevator, the Commissioner suspended Rice indefinitely. The case is now pending in the league grievance process. Recently, the Commissioner announced an enhanced penalty structure for personal conduct cases.

A plethora of legal questions are associated with this case. How was Rice initially suspended two games while other infractions that were seemingly not so serious (using PEDs) resulted in stiffer penalties? What about the Fifth Amendment Double Jeopardy rule? Can the Commissioner and the Ravens sanction Rice twice for the same misconduct? Since most mass media obscured such issues, this entry briefly explores them in the context of the legal aspects of the incident.

While the use of recreational and performance-enhancing drugs is strictly governed by the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the league and the players union, personal conduct cases are subject to the Commissioner’s broad authority. Thus, the initial two game suspension might not be inconsistent with any league regulations or rules of law even though it raised, without a doubt, a set of ethical and moral questions. The case is not covered by the Fifth Amendment Double Jeopardy rule because the current incident is not a criminal case. The rule only applies to a criminal case involved with state or federal government.

Although there is no double jeopardy issue here, Rice and the union’s on-going grievance claim might have regulatory grounds under Article 46 of the CBA. The provision states: “[o]ne Penalty: [t]he Commissioner and a Club will not both discipline a player for the same act or conduct. The Commissioner’s disciplinary action will preclude or supersede disciplinary action by any Club for the same act or conduct.” Rice was released by the Ravens and suspended by the league. Pursuant to the CBA, the grievance case will be heard and decided by an arbitrator. Recently, the league and union agreed to choose a neutral arbitrator for the case just like the famous New Orleans Saints bounty case. If the arbitrator construes “discipline” in the CBA provision broadly, Rice and the union’s challenge might have merits.

How about the legitimacy of the initial two-game suspension and additional (indefinite) suspension later imposed by the Commissioner? Since the CBA does not expressly prohibit double sanctions like the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution does, the Commissioner was in fact allowed to impose another sanction upon the newly discovered aggravating evidence that was arguably further “detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the National Football League,” i.e., the elevator video. Thus, there will be some factual disputes down the road whether the Commissioner had knowledge about the content of the elevator video when he decided the first sanction and whether Rice provided misleading information about the case when he met with the Commissioner during the summer to plead his case. It is also notable that the Commissioner’s discipline can be challenged in the court of law (pretty hard though) if Rice or the union can demonstrate that the Commissioner’s decision was “arbitrary or capricious.”

While media have extensively covered the factual background and sociocultural issues of the case, the above-mentioned legal aspects have mostly been ignored. At least, media should have sent some reporters who could cover and explicate such legal aspects of the case in depth since it was essentially an incident associated with criminal charges.

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