Whenever the bottom-of-the-screen scroll on any channel runs scrolls flashes “Breaking News,” it gets Pavlovian attention.
On Friday, such a blurb came across the bottom inch of the biggest big-screen TV with breaking news. Ray Rice won his appeal against his prolonged suspension, which was almost immediately interpreted as giving potential for Adrian Peterson to return to the field before the end of the 2014 season.
Retired U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones, who was brought in to serve as a third-party arbitrator to hear Rice’s appeal, ruled Rice didn’t mislead the NFL when he was initially disciplined for the charge of punching his fiancée in an Atlantic City casino elevator.
The NFL contended that Rice misled Commissioner Roger Goodell about pertinent information when he was suspended and Jones said she heard the case knowing that the players association, which filed the appeal, carried the burden of proof that Rice was forthright in his version of the events.
In her ruling, Jones stated that the NFLPA carried its burden of proof and that Rice didn’t mislead Goodell, adding that the imposition of a second suspension based on the same incident and the same known facts was arbitrary. Jones added that any failure on the part of the NFL to understand the level of violence wasn’t due to Rice’s description of what happened and that the NFL’s lack of a severe punishment was a sign of the league’s failure in the past to punish such conduct more severely.
The ruling allowed Rice to be immediately reinstated and he now has the ability to sign on with any team that wants to bring him in. The ruling was viewed as a clear victory for the NFLPA and Rice, but also opens the door for a significant change to the league’s currently punitive policy in handing down suspensions to players.
Peterson is scheduled to have his appeal heard Tuesday, but the hearing is going to be heard by longtime NFL hearing officer Harold Henderson, who has a long history of siding with the NFL during such appeals. The players association has contended that the appeals process is flawed when it is heard by someone like Henderson, who has been hearing such appeals for years and has so consistently ruled in favor of the NFL.
Like Rice, who was given a two-game suspension by Goodell, but when the video of the incident surfaced, it created a national outrage about the lack of severity of the punishment. Nobody disputed that what Rice did was horrific, but the legal question was whether he was put into double jeopardy by being punished twice for the same crime after the league imposed tougher penalties on issues of domestic violence after the Rice case had already been heard and the judgment handed down.
The Peterson case is different, but has many similar angles to it. While he was sitting on the rarely used Commissioner’s Exempt List, Peterson was paid but unable to play under the rules set forth by the league as his legal matter was adjudicated. Just as they had done with Rice, the perception has been that the NFL is making rules as they go along without applying rules of fairness. That is the union’s stance.
Under the new rules that the NFL imposed in the wake of the Rice incident, a domestic violence conviction would result in a six-game suspension. To date, Peterson has effectively served a 10-game suspension that will become 11 games when he misses tomorrow’s game with Carolina.
At question moving forward is how the NFL handles appeals to its unilaterally imposed suspensions. Henderson is far from an impartial arbitrator. He worked for the league for 16 years as the chairman of the NFL Management Council’s executive committee and was also a league vice president of labor relations. He was on the NFL’s payroll, which clearly brings into question to his objectivity in hearing such cases – much less given his tendency to rule on the side of the NFL in such appeals.
It looks much more likely that Peterson will lose out on playing this season because we’re less than a month away from the conclusion of the regular season, but the bigger issue that would come from the Rice and Peterson cases is that the spotlight thrown on domestic violence will require the league and the players association to collectively bargain the definitions of domestic violence and how punishment can equitably be meted out.
It may be too late for Peterson to have his punishment commuted to time served.
For those hoping that Peterson can return this season, the Rice ruling is seen as a positive sign in that respect. However, given the slow-moving wheels of justice in the NFL, it may not be soon enough to bring him back this season.
The bigger issue is that in future appeals, there may be more third-party arbitrators hearing the cases and, if the NFL wants to continue to unilaterally impose punishment, Goodell and top NFL executives will be subject to testifying and being cross-examined by defense attorneys during the process, which happened to Goodell in the Rice appeal.
The times will be changing given the result of the Rice appeal (and the rationale expressed in the decision), but it may come too late for Peterson to get back on the field in 2014.
If Peterson wins his appeal, another line in the sand may be drawn by the NFPLA that change is needed. Don’t expect to see Peterson on the field in December, but Friday’s decision has opened the door to that possibility, regardless of how remote that possibility may be.
Will Rice’s victory help Peterson?
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