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NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Friday defended the two-game suspension he handed down to Baltimore Ravens star running back Ray Rice, saying it was consistent with previous punishments in domestic violence incidents.
Rice, 27, was charged with felony aggravated assault after police alleged he struck his then-fiancee Janay Palmer, who is now his wife, and knocked her unconscious during a physical altercation in the elevator of an Atlantic City, N.J., casino in February. He ultimately was accepted into a diversionary program, avoiding jail time and potentially getting the charge taken off his record.
“We have to remain consistent,” Goodell told reporters while in Canton, Ohio, for Pro Football Hall of Fame weekend. “We can’t just make up the discipline. It has to be consistent with other cases, and it was.”
Goodell’s comments were his first on the subject since the NFL announced Rice’s discipline July 24. In addition to being suspended for two games, Rice was fined $529,000.
The punishment was widely criticized as too lenient given the allegations that Rice faced and the length of other suspensions Goodell has given for drugs and other off-the-field issues.
The critics include several U.S. Senators who sent letters to the Ravens and the league on Thursday.
Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy of Connecticut, and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin — all Democrats — joined to call Rice’s punishment “plainly inadequate.” They implored the league and the Ravens to revisit the sanctions against Rice and also called on the league to create a program to deal with domestic violence in a way similar to its treatment of drug offenses by players.
Maryland’s senators, Democrats Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin, also criticized the punishment.
“I thought it was too light because I thought it was a very serious issue,” Cardin said. “I’m not the commissioner of the NFL, I’m not the owner of the Ravens. I can just tell you … that the penalty was very mild.”
Mikulski, the longest-serving woman in Congress, said the league should send a message with Rice’s punishment.
“Domestic violence is unacceptable whether it’s done by a celebrity or an unknown cad,” Mikulski said in a statement. “The NFL must make clear this conduct will not be tolerated and not be so tepid.”
Goodell bristled at suggestions that the punishment was tepid or that the NFL was treating Rice differently because he is a star or that the league doesn’t take domestic violence seriously enough.
“Our policy is clear,” he said. “We have a very firm policy that domestic violence is not acceptable in the NFL and that there will be consequences for that.”
Goodell said he understood the negative response to the suspension. Then he appeared to grow agitated when asked about Rice’s domestic violence incident drawing a two-game suspension when in the past other players have received a four-game ban for smoking marijuana.
“You have to deal with some facts,” Goodell said. “When we have a drug program that is collectively bargained and it has a step process, it takes four incidents before you actually reach a suspension in a drug-related case. You have to respond to facts here. A lot of people are voicing their opinion, but it’s important to understand that this is a young man that made a terrible mistake that is inconsistent with what we’re all about. We dealt with it in a serious manner, and we’re very confident that this young man understands where he is and what he needs to do going forward.”
Goodell praised Rice for his response to the incident. Rice and his wife have been getting extensive therapy and counseling.
“I think what’s important here is Ray is taking responsibility,” Goodell said. “He’s been accountable for his actions. He recognizes he made a horrible mistake and it’s unacceptable, by his standards and our standards. And he’s got to work to re-establish himself. And the criminal justice system, as you know, put him in a diversionary program with no discipline. We felt it was appropriate to have discipline and to continue the counseling programs and to continue our educational work. I was also very impressed with Ray in the sense that Ray is not only accepting this issue but he’s saying, ‘I was wrong,’ and he’s saying, ‘I want to make a powerful difference in this area.’ “
Rice spoke to reporters Thursday and answered questions about the incident for the first time. He apologized to his wife, who was watching the news conference from the balcony above, and vowed that the couple will become advocates against domestic violence when the time is right.
Goodell acknowledged that Rice’s reputation — he has been one of the most active Ravens in the community during his time in Baltimore — and the fact that he was a first-time offender influenced the decision.
“I think I have the opportunity as the commissioner to be able to hear directly from him, and that’s helpful to me and important for me to do that,” Goodell said. “What I want to see is success stories. I want to see people, when they make a mistake, I want to see them take responsibility and be accountable for it and make a difference going forward. I hope that’s what Ray Rice is going to do.”