As training camps open across the NFL, commissioner Roger Goodell has started suspending players — starting with Thursday's two-gamer for Ravens running back Ray Rice — for bad behavior in the offseason. And as in years past, it has highlighted his immense power and inconsistencies.
The spotlight grew after Colts owner Jim Irsay was arrested in March on a charge of driving while intoxicated. Goodell hasn't handed down a punishment. Now his handling of Rice has been questioned.
Rice's suspension stems from a February arrest for an altercation with Janay Palmer, his then-fiancee, in Atlantic City. The couple married, but video of Rice dragging an unconscious Palmer later surfaced. Rice, 27, was charged with felony assault. But he is in a pretrial intervention program, will not go to prison and underwent counseling.
"It is disappointing that I will not be with my teammates for the first two games of the season, but that's my fault," Rice said in a statement released by the Ravens. "I failed in many ways.
But Janay and I have learned from this. We have become better as a couple and as parents. I am better because of everything we have experienced since that night."
Rice also was fined $58,000 and will forfeit nearly $500,000 of his salary.
"As you acknowledged during our meeting, your conduct was unquestionably inconsistent with league polices and the standard of behavior required of everyone who is part of the NFL," Goodell said to Rice in a letter released by the league. "The league is an entity that depends on integrity and in the confidence of the public and we simply cannot tolerate conduct that endangers others or reflects negatively on our game. This is particularly true with respect to domestic violence and other forms of violence against women."
Critics noted players are routinely suspended for more games for doing less than Rice's actions.
"Suspensions for drugs and (performance-enhancing drugs) were longer," ESPN analyst and former player Mark Schlereth said. "We've seen on-the-field conduct (suspensions) be longer than that. We're seeing guys getting fined (and suspended) for helmet-to-helmets hits that were unavoidable."
Under the labor deal, players who test positive for PEDs are suspended for four games. A second positive test results in an eight-game penalty. A third is a one-year suspension.
Goodell took his cue from Rice's legal case, the New York Times reported. Rice will not go to jail and the initial felony charge was reduced to what amounted to counseling.
Goodell has not suspended a first-time offender of domestic violence for more than two games, according to espn.com. In 2011, he suspended then-Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor for five games for trading tattoos for memorabilia while at Ohio State.
"When you have a disciplinary policy where the commissioner controls everything, there will always be some inequities," said Robert Boland, who teaches sports law at New York University and was previously an NFL agent. "The players hate it, and they argue that he is judge and jury."
He noted other leagues use third-party arbitrators for appeals. In the NFL, Goodell hears them.
Harry Edwards, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of California and a consultant for the 49ers for 30 years, said domestic violence is a complicated issue.
"This is a bigger problem than racism," he said. "This is women, and it cuts across all lines. Domestic violence cuts across ethnic groups and class lines in this country.
"So is there room for the No. 1 league in this country to do more? Absolutely."