The NFL Commissioner, the Player and the Testimony

Roger Goodell
Testimony from a November hearing shows inconsistencies in Goodell’s statements on Ray Rice. Mike Segar/Reuters

Updated | Newly released testimony from the November hearing in former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice's suspension appeal indicates NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell may have known more than he publicly let on about Rice's attack on his then fiancée.

Ray Rice is allowed to play football again, though no team has drafted him since the November 28 NFL appeal hearing decided that he did not lie to Goodell about what occurred in an elevator between him and his partner, Janay Palmer.

The arbitrator, Barbara Jones, determined Goodell's indefinite suspension of Rice was "arbitrary" and "an abuse of discretion."

The Timeline

This February, a clip of a security video surfaced of Rice dragging an unconscious Janay Palmer out of an elevator. Goodell said in March that he was aware of the incident, but wasn't sure if the Ravens would penalize the player. In July, Goodell made the decision to suspend Rice for just two games (by contrast, a DUI can lead to season-long suspensions, as can drug use). When Goodell announced the two-game suspension, fans and pundits alike began asking if the NFL did not take domestic abuse seriously, and if perhaps Goodell knew more about Rice's actions inside the elevator than he had made public. On September 8, the entire security video showing what occurred in the elevator became public, and the commissioner found himself in a great deal of hot water.

Rice had punched Palmer in the face and as she fell from the force of the blow, her head hit a railing inside the elevator. She was unconscious, and, from there, Rice dragged her from the elevator, as the February video showed. When TMZ published this second video, almost immediately, the Ravens terminated Rice's contract, saying that Rice's description of the incident to the commissioner when the investigation first began did not match what was on tape. Goodell suspended Rice "indefinitely." It was widely reported Goodell was not told about the punch, which he had up to that point referred to as a "slap."

For weeks, the commissioner and even Rice's former team, the Baltimore Ravens, publicly stated they had not seen evidence of the punch and felt Rice had misled them about the incident when they were first notified of it.

This week, ESPN released appeals testimony, which indicates Rice appears to have told the full story about what happened in the elevator from the start, and that Goodell was told about the incident in more detail than he had publicly claimed. In the hearing, a number of NFL executives took his side against Goodell. Typically, testimony of this kind remains sealed, ESPN did not identify its source for the testimony.

The main inconsistencies that emerge in the testimony are that the commissioner did not formally seek a copy of the full security tape and that Rice likely never used the word slap in his description of the event, a word that Goodell initially used frequently.

The Slap

Goodell testified that when he spoke to Rice in the spring, the player insisted Palmer was unconscious due to a "slap." He said Rice "minimized the impact of the physical contact." Rice, however, told a very different story. "I told the commissioner I hit her, she hit her head; and I did not ever mention that she slipped and hit her head and that's what knocked her out. Never mentioned to that extreme to an extent where a slap, that she slipped, hit her head and knocked herself out. Those words never came out of my mouth." The lawyer clarified, "You never told the commissioner it was your slap?" Rice replied, "It wasn't a slap. I told the commissioner that I hit her, she hit her head on the railing."

Ozzie Newsome, general manager of the Ravens, took Rice's side. His testimony clarified that Rice had absolutely said the words "I hit her" and that Rice's account of the incident in the spring matched the video released in September. NFL investigator Mario Di Fonzo gave NFL chief security officer Jeffrey B. Miller a very direct description of the event, in line with Rice's description. Di Fonzo wrote: "One alleged eyewitness account reports Rice struck his fiancée one time in the face and knocked her unconscious." Adolpho Birch, NFL executive vice president, admitted he never asked Rice detailed, descriptive questions about the elevator encounter in February, such as how hard he had hit Palmer. Rice testified Goodell did not ask any specific questions about the blow either.

The Security Tape

One big question was when the NFL saw the full security video, and whether it tried to obtain the full footage in the spring. Goodell skirted around the issue of whether the NFL did or did not obtain the full tape for weeks, and in his testimony, he added that neither himself nor Miller asked Michael Diamondstein, Rice's lawyer, for a copy of the full length tape. Diamondstein had received the tape through a subpoena and had permission from Rice to send it to the NFL, but they never asked, according to Diamondstein. One investigator told Miller by email, "I never contacted anyone about the tape."

Goodell had previously said the NFL attempted to get the video from four different police departments. In a memo sent on September 10 to every NFL team owner, he wrote, "on multiple occasions, we asked the proper law enforcement authorities to share with us all relevant information, including any video of the incident." In contradiction to the memo, the testimony revealed none of these departments said they received a formal request from the NFL for the video. In fact, three of the four never had the tape to begin with.

NFL Players Association attorney Jeffrey Kessler was extremely careful to ask Goodell every detail about obtaining the tape. Their interaction continued as follows until Goodell's lawyer objected:

"... you said, 'we asked for it on several occasions according to our security department. We went through it, we asked for it on several occasions over the spring, all the way through June.' You see that statement? Did you make a comment like that?," Kessler asked.

"Yes, I remember that."

"Did you ever learn before or after that that in fact no formal request was made for videos about your security department of the police department who had it is that in fact they never made such a formal request?"

"[What] does a formal request mean?"

"Are you aware that there [are] laws in the State of New Jersey where people can file formal requests for information from the police department?"

"I'm not an attorney."

"Let me just say, is it your understanding when you made your second decision that your people had done whatever formal means they could to get the first video or not? Do you have any understanding of that one way or the other?"

"I had an understanding they had asked for any information that would be pertinent to this case. It would be helpful to us and we'd get a very limited amount of information. I think what's mentioned in the indictment and the pre-trial intervention there may have been other information," Goodell said in one of his few longer answers.

"Would it have affected your determination if you had seen an e-mail in which the security person responsible said I never specifically made a formal request of the police department for any tapes, would that have affected your determination at all if you had that information?"

"As I said before, I don't know what you mean by formal, but I know they requested the tape."

"So on September 9th, Mr. Buckley writes to Mr. Miller, 'again, I never spoke to anyone from the casino or police department about the tape.' Okay. What I'm going to ask you, did you ever become aware prior to imposing your second discipline that security people had not really spoken to the police department or the casino about getting the inside the elevator tape?"

"I wasn't aware of the fact that they tried to get it from law enforcement. I do not know the specifics."

Since the Rice incident, the NFL has created stronger guidelines for handling domestic abuse. It has hired domestic abuse experts and launched a public service announcement campaign, which airs during their games. Under the new player conduct policy, issues of this sort will be independently investigated, players will be put on paid leave while violent crimes are investigated, and Goodell will continue playing a part in the appeals process. "It is strong. It is tough. And it is better for everyone associated with the NFL," Goodell said of the new policy.

Update, 5:19 pm | The NFL issued the following statement in response to Van Natta's ESPN report and the released testimony:

The ESPN article written by Don Van Natta distorts the testimony and evidence in the Rice matter. Among the numerous inaccuracies in the story, there are no emails or any other evidence from an NFL investigator stating 'I never contacted anyone about the tape.' That is a quote not from an email, but from an argument by Rice's own attorney mischaracterizing the evidence. The email in fact explains that, despite his multiple efforts to do so, the investigator was unable to speak with anyone from law enforcement about the tape. The email details the efforts the investigator took in an effort to obtain any and all evidence in the Rice matter. Those steps included contacting and seeking information from the Atlantic City Police Department, the New Jersey State Police, the Atlantic City Solicitor's Office and the Atlantic County Superior Court.

The NFL did not provide any documentation to support their statement. Van Natta and ESPN have not retracted their original report.