In her decision to vacate Ray Rice's indefinite suspension, Judge Barbara S. Jones leveled an indictment more damning than her finding that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell acted arbitrarily in handing Rice a second, harsher suspension after the video of Rice punching his then-fiancée in an elevator surfaced.
"I have found that Rice did not mislead the Commissioner," Jones wrote in her decision, released Friday afternoon. "Moreover, any failure on the part of the league to understand the level of violence was not due to Rice's description of the event, but to the inadequacy of words to convey the seriousness of domestic violence. That the league did not realize the severity of the conduct without a visual record also speaks to their admitted failure in the past to sanction this type of conduct more severely."
That is the painful truth that has haunted the NFL since the firestorm following the investigation into the Rice incident. The NFL knew plenty -- certainly enough -- to get it right the first time. But the NFL relied heavily on the judicial outcome of Rice's case and on precedent that was inadequate not just for current mores, but for common sense in a league that has held itself up as a moral arbiter. Even if Rice did not explicitly say he punched his fiancée in the face, the league should have been able to intuit what happened well enough to know that a two-game suspension was far too light for the gravity of the situation.
There were other revelations in Jones' statement that will draw attention. Jones noted that the league never asked Rice for the elevator video, even though Rice had it, an admission that is sure to be frowned upon in the still-to-come Robert Mueller report of the league's conduct. And the appeal hearing revealed for the first time that after Goodell revised the domestic violence policy in the wake of the fierce public outcry over Rice's initial two-game punishment, he personally called Rice to explain that he would not be subject to the new six-game suspension for a first-time offense, because the policy was only forward-looking.
In a brief statement, the league said it accepted Jones' decision and Rice is now free to sign with a team.
That ends Rice's entanglement with league discipline. But this incident is far from over, because the NFL will grapple with the fallout for much longer.
The judge does not specifically question Goodell's honesty in maintaining that Rice's version of events was ambiguous enough that when the commissioner saw the video from the elevator it changed his thinking; though, she said Goodell's testimony was diminished by its vagueness in his recollections. But Jones is also adamant that Rice did not lie in his summer meeting with Goodell when Rice said he hit his fiancée. That there are disparities in notes taken by both sides -- the league's are not very detailed, Jones said -- during that offseason meeting is not surprising. The parsing of the words will go on and the he said-he said would almost be beside the point, except that it will lead plenty of people to wonder if league officials heard only what they wanted to hear in determining their initial punishment of Rice until the public told them they were wrong.
"I do not doubt that viewing the video in September evoked horror in Commissioner Goodell as it did with the public," Jones wrote. "But this does not change the fact that Rice did not lie or mislead the NFL at the June 16 meeting."
The league has been embarrassed by this incident, and it has scrambled to make amends and put systems in place to make sure such a misstep won't happen again. In the long run, that's a good thing.
But the league's credibility has been dented and that, too, will have long-lasting repercussions, particularly as it determines discipline in similar cases. Already there are those who question whether Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson would have been suspended after being on the commissioner's exempt list if the NFL hadn't been so affected by the Rice aftermath. It's naïve to think the NFL will never have to grapple with these issues again. Each time it will also have to grapple with deserved doubt about the genuineness of its motives.
In the short term, the NFL and its 32 franchises might now have to manage the fallout if a team chooses to sign Rice. That might seem to be a longshot for now. The season is entering its final month, and there are only a handful of teams both in need of running back help and desperate enough in a playoff race to risk the likely criticism and avalanche of attention that will accompany bringing Rice aboard.
In the long term, the NFL and Goodell have a bigger and messier challenge. It is not just to rebuild their reputations as stewards of the sport, but also to reset the moral compass that is supposed to be guiding them.