The failure of the NFL to create a clear record of the things said when a player meets with the Commissioner for review of the player’d case under the personal conduct policy means that, if a dispute arises regarding what was said, the facts must be recreated.
In the Ray Rice case, the recreation of the facts by former U.S. Judge Barbara S. Jones centered on the NFL’s contention that Rice didn’t say he had struck his then-fiancée, and that Rice actually said he had slapped Janay Palmer, who then fell and “knocked herself out.” Ultimately, that’s what it boiled down to before Judge Jones; whether Rice said he hit Janay or whether he said he slapped her, she fell, and she “knocked herself out.”
The testimony of the witnesses regarding the things said at the June 16, 2014 meeting at the league office conflicted on that point, with Rice and his witnesses contending that he said he struck Janay — and with the NFL’s witnesses contending that Rice merely said he slapped her and she then fell and “knocked herself out.” This necessitated a review by Judge Jones of the notes made by persons attending the meeting.
Commissioner Roger Goodell’s notes were “not detailed” and contained no “verbatim quotes” from Rice regarding the assault. Goodell’s notes do not contain the word “slap” but they do use the word “struck.” NFL senior V.P. of labor policy and governmental affairs Adolpho Birch’s notes were “even sparser.”
NFL senior labor relations counsel Kevin Manara, who was assigned specifically to take notes, wrote that “he slapped her; fell; knocked herself out.” However, Judge Jones was “not persuaded that [Manara’s] notes reliably report that Rice used the words ‘knocked herself out.'” She reasoned that Jones’ notes use “slapped” when the majority of witnesses said Rice used the word “hit,” and she pointed to Manara’s concession that the notes describing the assault were not “verbatim.” It’s a subtle way of rejecting the credibility of Manara’s notes without attributing a reason or motive for the lack of credibility.
In contrast, NFLPA counsel Heather McPhee generated “more detailed and careful notes, which emphasize the exact words Rice used with quotation marks.” She wrote that Rice specifically said, “And then I hit her,” that Janay fell, and that she seemed “knocked out.” McPhee also gave “emphatic” testimony that Rice did not say that Janay had “knocked herself out.” Goodell and Birch were far less unequivocal about their recollection of Rice’s words.
This prompted Judge Jones to conclude that Rice had said that he hit Janay, and that he did not claim she had “knocked herself out.” Judge Jones then demonstrated that the mechanism for the knockout was and is irrelevant.
“Whether the blow itself or hitting the railing knocked Mrs. Rice unconscious, the cause was the hit,” Judge Jones wrote. “Rice reported to Commissioner Goodell that he had hit Mrs. Rice; and his lifting and dropping of her prone body were there for all to see in the outside-the-elevator video. Commissioner Goodell himself, in response to the question, ‘Did Mr. Rice ever say that he knocked out Ms. Palmer?,’ testified, ‘No, but he took full responsibility for it, he said it is not her fault, it is my fault.”
In other words, Rice hit Janay and as a result she became unconscious. It doesn’t matter whether he knocked her out with the blow, whether she was knocked out when the blow sent her head into the elevator railing, or whether she became unconscious by falling after being struck and thus somehow “knocked herself out.” Rice initiated the assault that left her knocked out.
And that gets back to the point that the investigation regarding whether the NFL knew or should have known what was in the video doesn’t matter. The NFL knew what happened in the elevator. Ray hit Janay, and Jay ultimately became unconscious. Regardless of what it specifically looked like, no one should have expected it to be a pleasant thing to watch. Football players routinely are struck in the head and few ever end up in the condition Janay was in from the initial surveillance video that was published weeks before Rice met with Goodell.
Perhaps the league’s goal has been to make this all so complicated that the simple logic became obscured. Under the simple logic that emerges unmistakably from Judge Jones’ decision, the end result is every bit as troubling as a finding that the NFL actually had access to the video. The truth is that, while the NFL may not have been able to see the images before the video was released on September 8, the NFL didn’t need to.