After former U.S. Judge Barbara S. Jones overturned the indefinite suspension imposed on former Ravens running back Ray Rice, NFL general counsel Jeff Pash sent a memo to all team presidents and chief executives regarding the decision.
The full text of the memo can be seen here.
The following paragraph likely will attract the most attention: “No part of Judge Jones’s decision questions the Commissioner’s honesty or integrity, nor his good faith consideration of the issue when he imposed the indefinite suspension on Mr. Rice. Nor is there any suggestion that the Commissioner had seen the video from inside the elevator before it became public, or knew of the contents of the video.”
As to the first sentence, it’s true that Judge Jones did not question the “honesty or integrity” of Commissioner Roger Goodell. She also did not question the “honesty or integrity” of any other witnesses. However, it’s clear that Judge Jones rejected the testimony of Goodell and two other league office executives, Adolpho Birch and Kevin Manara. They all claimed that Rice had explained in June that he merely “slapped” Janay Palmer Rice, and that after being slapped she fell and “knocked herself out.” Judge Jones determined that Rice never said that.
Regardless of whether Judge Jones questioned in her own mind the “honesty or integrity” of the witnesses supporting the NFL’s position that Rice had provided the league a “starkly different sequence of events” than the elevator video demonstrates, Judge Jones found Goodell, Birch, and Manara to be not credible. Otherwise, she would have accepted their explanation as truthful and accurate, and she would have agreed with the conclusion that Rice provided a “starkly different sequence of events.”
Most judges aren’t in the business of directly questioning the “honesty or integrity” of witnesses. Instead, they drop hints and offer clues. In this case, a fairly strong clue could be lurking in plain sight at page 7 of her 17-page ruling.
Wrote Judge Jones: “As soon as he arrived at the office [on the day the elevator video was published], the Commissioner assembled all those who worked on the issue to a meeting, at which they looked back at the notes of the June 16 meeting, and ‘made sure all of us had the same recollection.'”
In 2012, Goodell suspended Saints coach Sean Payton for a full year in part because Goodell concluded that Payton “encourage[d] the false denials [of a bounty program] by instructing assistants to ‘make sure our ducks are in a row.'” Getting “ducks in a row” is the same thing as making sure witnesses “had the same recollection.” When the witnesses emerged from that meeting with the exact same recollection and when a former federal judge later rejected that shared recollection as not credible, it’s possible that the judge was indirectly making the same point Goodell made in reference to Payton.
As to the second sentence from the Pash memo, it’s accurate that Judge Jones did not suggest that “the Commissioner had seen the video from inside the elevator before it became public.” However, Judge Jones’ ruling easily can be interpreted as a determination that the league office (and thus the Commissioner) “knew the contents of the video” without seeing it or needing to see it. Rice told them what happened. The video showed what happened. Rice’s explanation was consistent with the contents of the video, which means that anyone who heard Rice’s explanation “knew the contents of the video.”
Pash’s memo also overlooks perhaps the most important conclusion reached by Judge Jones, as it relates to the NFL’s handling of the Rice case. She determined that Rice had the video, and that the NFL never bothered to ask Rice for it. While that finding says nothing about anyone’s honesty or integrity, its speaks to a degree of negligence that borders on recklessness. The team presidents and chief executives could find that to be as troubling as a determination that questioned the honesty and integrity of one or more league employees.