The NFL screwed up its discipline of Ray Rice. Badly. Now, the story isn’t even about Ray Rice anymore; it’s about the NFL’s incompetent handling of the whole situation.
In case you’ve been on Mars for the last four days, in a cave, with your eyes shut, and your fingers in your ears, here’s what happened: Ray Rice — a prominent NFL player — was arrested for assaulting Janay Palmer (then Rice’s fiancee’, now his wife) in a casino elevator. Video from outside the elevator showed Rice awkwardly dragging her unconscious body from the elevator. Clearly, something horrendous happened inside. Roger Goodell met with Rice and Palmer — together, for some reason — and decided a two-game suspension was sufficient (which, no). Rice’s NFL team, the Baltimore Ravens did nothing. For comparison, Josh Gordon was recently suspended for a full season by the NFL for smoking some marijuana. There was a lot of initial backlash against the NFL for its lenient treatment of Rice.
Then this week, the video from inside the elevator was leaked by TMZ. It shows Rice slap Palmer in the face (then Palmer may have spit on Rice, it’s not clear), Rice backs away, and then as Palmer approaches Rice again, he hits her with a left hook, causing her to strike her head on the handrail and fall to the floor of the elevator, unconscious. It is brutal.
The Ravens cut Rice from the team just hours after the leak. The NFL then upped its suspension of Rice from two games to indefinite. Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner, claimed he had never seen the video before, because, well, he never asked the right people for it, even though he easily could have. And this was contrary to the sources of multiple reporters, who claimed the NFL had, in fact, seen the video prior to Rice’s two-game suspension. Now, the AP is reporting that someone forwarded a copy of the video to an executive in the NFL. The NFL is conducting a non-independent “independent investigation” (overseen by two NFL owners) into the NFL, and many people and organizations, such as the National Organization for Women, are calling for Gooddell to either resign or be fired.
This is a full-blown crisis for the NFL. The league — and, in particular, Commissioner Roger Goodell — now appear tolerant of violence against women. It’s just not that big of a deal to them. Two games was fine. Didn’t need to watch the video (or lied about watching it). Ray Rice is a good guy. Not like that pot-smoking delinquent Josh Gordon! For him a full season.
But what if Ray Rice played in the NHL, not the NFL? Is the NHL better-equipped to handle a serious domestic violence case? Not really. Because the NHL’s system suffers from the same fatal flaw as the NFL’s: putting one man in charge of the whole thing, judge, jury, and executioner.
Because Gary Bettman is god when it comes to off-ice discipline in the NHL. Just as with the NFL, the NHL Commish has complete discretion to do — or not do — whatever he wants in response to domestic violence, or any other off-ice conduct. Here is the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (section 18-A.2):
Commissioner Authority to Impose Discipline for Off-Ice Conduct.
Whenever the Commissioner determines that a Player . . . has been or is guilty of conduct (whether during or outside the playing season) that is detrimental to or against the welfare of the League or the game of hockey, he may discipline such Player in any or all of the following respects:
(a) by expelling or suspending such Player for a definite or indefinite period;
(b) by cancelling any [Standard Player’s Contract] that such Player has with any Member Club; or
(c) by imposing a fine on the Player not exceeding the maximum permissible fine under Section 18.7(b)
In other words, Gary Bettman gets to determine if anything detrimental to the league has occurred, then gets to decide what, if any, discipline is warranted, anywhere from a fine to expulsion from the league. And Bettman has complete and total authority to interpret the CBA — not to mention the NHL Constitution, the official rules of the NHL, the league’s bylaws, and pretty much everything else under the sun — as he sees fit (section 6.3(d)). And his interpretation “shall be final and binding and shall not be subject to any review.” Alrighty then! How’s that working out for the NFL?
And there is no NHL rule anywhere on domestic violence that Bettman even has to pretend to follow. Notably, after the initial backlash against the NFL for its pathetic two-game suspension of Rice, Goodell instituted some set punishments for domestic violence issues. Well, by “set punishments,” I mean punishments Goodell was and is free to ignore as he sees fit in any particular case. So it really wasn’t much of anything. Just more power consolidation by the Commish.
Neither are there any real checks on Bettman’s power. The only person or group Bettman has to answer to is the NHL Board of Governors. And they’re not getting involved unless something really, really awful happens. The NHL Constitution says that the Commissioner “shall be charged with protecting the integrity of the game of professional hockey and preserving public confidence in the League” (section 6.1). That’s basically in there to allow the Board to fire Bettman after a Roger Goodell-esque screwup, not before.
So is Bettman more inclined than Goodell to treat domestic violence seriously? It’s hard to tell. A partial answer comes from the Semyon Varlamov situation. Varlamov, starting goalie for the Colorado Avalanche, was arrested and charged with third-degree assault after allegedly punching, kicking, stomping on, dragging, and threatening the life of his girlfriend, Evgeniya Vavrinyukat. Months later, the charges were dropped because prosecutors did not believe they could secure a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.
In the gap between the arrest and the charges being dropped, however, the NHL — specifically, Gary Bettman — did nothing. He made a decision to “monitor the situation” and not “take any action or have any further comment pending the resolution of those charges.” How bold. Head coach of the Colorado Avalanche, Patrick Roy, pledged his support for Varlamov, who never even missed a game. Ilya Kovalchuk argued the girlfriend was making everything up. Fedor Tyutin said some really excruciating things in his attempt to show support for Varlamov. So all in all, the league seemed kinda meek and content with one of their own potentially brutally beating a woman.
But there was a big difference between Ray Rice and Semyon Varlamov: there was no video of the Avs goalie tormenting his girlfriend, so his guilt was far less of a given then Ray Rice’s. Perhaps if there had been video, things would have been much different. We’ll never know. And, hopefully, we’ll never have to figure out what Bettman — or a future Commissioner — would do, because NHL players will not commit acts of violence against women.
But, to the extent there is such violence, the NHL’s disciplinary system is wholly dependent on the judgment, character, and integrity of just one man, free to do whatever he wants. Great idea. Just ask Roger Goodell.
Jeff Herman is a Blues fan, hockey nut, fantasy guru, family man, and attorney. He lives and works in St. Louis.