NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell Indefinitely Suspends Ray Rice for Domestic Abuse. Is the Punishment Fair? Yes. Is it Legal? Yes.

In July of this year, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell disciplined Baltimore Raven running back Ray Rice with a two-game suspension for assaulting his then fiancée’ and current wife Janay Palmer. After the penalty was widely criticized as too lenient by women’s rights advocates, academics, and yes, even the media, Commissioner Goodell acknowledged he had mishandled the situation and announced he would toughen the league’s policy on domestic violence.

Subsequently, additional, more graphic footage emerge of the altercation between Ray Rice and Janay Palmer which prompted the Baltimore Ravens to release Rice and the Commissioner to increase the two-game suspension to that of an indefinite suspension.

“Our longstanding policy in matters like this — where there is a criminal investigation being directed by law enforcement and prosecutors — is to cooperate with law enforcement and take no action to interfere with the criminal justice system,” Goodell commented. “As always, we will continuously examine our procedures. I believe that we took a significant step forward with the enhanced policies on domestic violence and sexual assault that were announced last month.”

The question now being asked is whether Commissioner Goodell and the Baltimore Ravens can rightfully take additional steps, which they have, to punish Ray Rice since the Commissioner had previously disciplined him? Or to put in the way – can Ray Rice be punished twice for the same conduct?

The Commissioner’s powers to discipline NFL players are articulated in Article 46 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which states in part, that “[a]ll disputes involving a fine or suspension . . . involving action taken against a player by the Commissioner for conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of professional football, will be processed exclusively as follows . . .” and thereafter explains the process by which Rice and the NFLPA would be informed of the discipline and have the ability to appeal same.

In addition, the NFL’s Personal Conduct Policy grants the Commissioner the power to discipline a player when he determines that such player exhibits conduct that is detrimental to the league. The Policy grants the Commissioner the “full authority to impose discipline as warranted when he learns of a player who does not conduct himself in a way that is responsible, promotes the values upon which the League is based, and is lawful.”  The terms of the Personal Conduct Policy expressly allow for the Commissioner, and grants him the power, to discipline players in the form of “banishment from the League.”

Read together, neither the NFL Personal Conduct Policy nor the NFL CBA explicitly bar the Commissioner from changing the length of a suspension. However, Article 46, Section 4 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement bars the Commissioner and a team from both disciplining a player for engagement in the same act or conduct.

Therefore, the first question becomes whether or not the Baltimore Ravens’ release of Rice should be considered a form of discipline, and if determined such, whether this act violation since the League has already disciplined Ray Rice with an indefinite suspension?

The answer is no simply because any NFL team can release a player at any time and for any reason, lawful or not. Releasing a player involved in a domestic violence matter such as this is definitely a lawfully good reason. The fact that the Ravens originally supported Rice does not bar the team from changing its mind.

The second question is whether or not Commissioner Goodell is barred from instituting multiple penalties against Rice under a theory widely recognized in the criminal context and known as double jeopardy?

Again, the answer is no. The Commissioner has broad legal authority to suspend players under the Personal Conduct Policy, including the ability to modify penalties. The Policy itself does not include a “double jeopardy” provision like one found in the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution. Player suspensions are not criminal sanctions so therefore a player cannot claim protection under the Fifth Amendment to avoid NFL penalty. Additionally, players have contractually assented to the NFL’s disciplinary authority through the collective bargaining agreement negotiated by their union, the National Football League Players’ Association.

So, will Ray Rice ever play in the NFL again? That is up to him. He needs to get professional help to make sure that something as egregious as what happen between his finacee’ Janay Palmer and himself never takes place again. Then, and only then, will the Commissioner and the League entertain the notion of allowing him to play in the NFL again.

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