Almost immediately, the NFL realized it had made a mistake in suspending Ray Rice for just two games in late July for his involvement in a domestic violence case. By the time Commissioner Roger Goodell arrived in Canton, Ohio, for the Hall of Fame ceremonies a week later, he and the league had been buffeted by wave after wave of ferocious criticism. The light-handed punishment seemed oddly out of step with the reputation of a commissioner who had staked the early years of his time in office to a push to clean up the image of the NFL by cracking down on behavior on and off the field.
Goodell had met with Rice and Rice's wife, Janay, who was brought along to the meeting by representatives of the NFL Players Association, and decided on the two games largely because that was in line with what the NFL had done in similar cases, according to people familiar with his thinking, and because the NFL was doing more than the legal system -- Rice avoided trial when he was allowed to enter a pre-trial intervention program.
It was misguided thinking, then and now. On Thursday, a little more than a month after the initial decision was announced, Goodell issued a rare mea culpa as part of a sweeping change to the Personal Conduct Policy for all league employees -- including players -- that now calls for a mandatory six-game suspension for a first domestic violence offense and banishment from the league for a second offense, with the possibility to petition for reinstatement after a year.
"I didn't get it right," Goodell wrote to owners in a letter informing them of the changes. "Simply put, we have to do better. And we will."
He also wrote: "We allowed our standards to fall below where they should be and lost an important opportunity to emphasize our strong stance on a critical issue and the effective programs we have in place. My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values."
Goodell talked to the head of the NFLPA, DeMaurice Smith, about the changes in penalties, although the changes are not collectively bargained.
"We were informed today of the NFL's decision to increase penalties on domestic violence offenders under the Personal Conduct Policy for all NFL employees," the union said in a statement. "As we do in all disciplinary matters, if we believe that players' due process rights are infringed upon during the course of discipline, we will assert and defend our members' rights."
There is little question that the loud response to the Rice decision contributed significantly to this change. In a press conference in Canton, Goodell signaled that changes were already being considered when, after being asked about the furious reaction to Rice's suspension, he said that the league listens to public feedback and uses it to make itself better.
Goodell surely heard from team owners, too. One told me soon after the Rice suspension was announced that he thought it was too light, and that sometimes the league has to take a tough stand and then let others take up for the player if they so choose.
"I am 100 percent supportive of the new policy," wrote New York Giants president John Mara in an email. "We need to make a stand and be much tougher on domestic violence. Many of us were not happy with the resolution in the Ray Rice case. There is no excuse for domestic violence and everyone in our league (players and staff alike) needs to know that there will be serious consequences. This is the right move at the right time."
The league will be opened up to valid questions about whether it was snapped to attention more by the public reaction than by Rice's actions, and there is no escaping those questions. The NFL disappointed enough people in the first place that observers will naturally be skeptical of its motives. But there is also nothing to do about those questions now. The NFL is doing the right thing going forward, but it will not reach back to reconsider Rice's suspension. The new policy will likely get its first test when Goodell considers the case of Carolina Panthers defensive lineman Greg Hardy, who has also been embroiled in a domestic violence case.
But Kim A. Gandy, the president and CEO of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, is not concerned about what led the NFL to change its policy, only that it changed. Gandy had been, she said, very personally disappointed in the Rice suspension, and her organization had offered its help to the NFL to do better. A few weeks ago, her office phone rang and it was Goodell on the line. Gandy said she was surprised by Goodell's call.
"Commissioner Goodell, in my first conversation with him, said, 'We got that wrong,' " Gandy said Thursday. "At that point, my interest was in saying, 'How do we figure out how to make it right?' That was very clearly their interest, doing it right, not in looking backward. I think that whatever moves a business or an entity in the right direction on this issue is good movement."
Their long conversation involved many questions, most of them from Goodell; about what characterizes domestic violence, about its effects on families and children, about its long-term ramifications. Gandy talked to Goodell about the impact of the NFL on the public at large. She discussed the role she believes athletes can play in bringing public attention to domestic violence because, Gandy made clear, sports are such a key part of what it means to be masculine in our society.
They talked, too, about why the public was upset with the NFL rather than complaining about how the legal system had not done enough.
"I think it said something important to them that the NFL has internalized, which is that their fans have extremely high expectations of them and hold them to a higher standard than society at large," Gandy said she gleaned from Goodell.
There were meetings in New York with other groups concerned with domestic violence. What emerged Thursday was what Gandy considers a "holistic" approach to combating domestic violence, including programs for counseling and intervention and, of course, punishment.
It is an admirable effort. But this is not really the time to applaud the NFL. Instead, it is time to breathe a sigh of relief -- that, while late, the league is finally getting it.