Roger Goodell botched the Ray Rice case from the start.
From the inadequate two-game suspension Goodell levied in July to the indefinite suspension that was summarily rejected by an independent arbitrator on Friday, the commissioner mismanaged the situation throughout the process. And from what we now learn based on the written decision of former U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones, who struck down the suspension and immediately reinstated Rice to allow his eventual return to the league, there was even more to Goodell's bungled handling of the case than we realized.
Which leaves Goodell in the unenviable position of being the focal point of the misguided process, not Rice's repugnant behavior on that night of Feb. 15 inside the elevator of Atlantic City's Revel Casino, where he cold-cocked his then-fiancee and rendered her unconscious.
The damage to Goodell's credibility has been immense, and the stern rebuke from Jones in her decision is the latest evidence of his poor handling of not only the Rice case but other disciplinary measures he has taken in the recent past.
At the heart of Jones' ruling against Goodell was the application of the indefinite suspension, which Goodell handed down hours after the Sept. 8 posting of a videotape of the actual punch that Rice delivered to Janay Palmer, who now is married to the running back, in the elevator. A previously released video merely showed Rice dragging an unconscious Palmer out of the elevator. Jones ruled that Goodell's indefinite suspension was a second punishment for the same incident.
But there was much more we learned about how Goodell and his associates conducted their deliberations.
For starters, Jones sided with Rice and said he was on the level with Goodell during a June 16 disciplinary hearing at NFL headquarters. Goodell indicated shortly after issuing his indefinite suspension that he believed Rice was being evasive in his answers, and that once he had seen the video of the punch, it empowered him to extend the initial two-game suspension to an open-ended sanction.
But now comes the part about that second video, the one that shows Rice punching Palmer. It turns out Rice was in possession of the video as a result of the proceedings in the initial criminal probe of his actions. During the discovery part of the case, Rice was given access to the video. But throughout the entire hearing in Goodell's office in June, there was no request to view that video.
"Rice had received this video in discovery during his criminal case, but it had not been aired publicly, as had the first video,'' Jones wrote. "The NFL never asked Rice for the second video.''
A seemingly inexcusable omission, especially given that it had been widely reported in the weeks after the assault that the second tape existed.
Like everyone else who saw the tape on Sept. 8, Goodell was appalled by what he saw and reacted swiftly. Just hours after the release of the tape, and only minutes after the Ravens announced that they had released Rice, Goodell suspended him indefinitely.
Just two weeks earlier, under a hail of unrelenting criticism, Goodell admitted publicly that he "got it wrong'' with the initial two-game suspension and introduced a new policy that would require a minimum six-game suspension for first-time violators of the domestic violence program.
Goodell personally called Rice and told him his situation would not apply to the new policy because his assault had occurred before the program was announced.
One more thing about that second tape: Had Goodell actually asked to see it in the first place, not only might he have been persuaded to issue a more appropriate sanction then, but he likely would have avoided the ongoing investigation by former FBI director Robert Mueller.
Goodell appointed Mueller to look into the NFL's evidence-gathering in the case after an Associated Press report indicated the league had received a copy of the tape anonymously. Goodell denied that the league had received it or that he had seen the tape; had he simply asked for it as part of Rice's disciplinary hearing, he could have avoided another public relations mess.
This is not the first time Goodell's heavy-handed discipline has led to a rejection at the appeal level.
Goodell brought down the hammer against the New Orleans Saints after an investigation revealed the team had a bounty program. The sanctions included a one-year suspension of coach Sean Payton and suspensions of several players, including a one-year ban for Jonathan Vilma.
But the outrage over a program that paid Saints defensive players to injure opponents eventually was swallowed up by the NFL's application of the penalties. In the end, Goodell appointed his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, to serve as the appeals officer in the case. As Jones did on Friday, Tagliabue vacated all of the sanctions Goodell had instituted. And in the process, the former commissioner lectured his protégé on how to better handle similar situations.
Goodell is in the process of forging a new personal conduct policy after conceding the previous system didn't work properly. He hasn't commented publicly about the Rice ruling, which allows the running back to resume his NFL career if a team decides to sign him. That may not come for a while, given the public relations fallout that could follow a signing.
Goodell knows there's a problem and hopes the new policy will address his previous shortcomings. "Judge Jones' ruling underscores the urgency of our work to develop and implement a clear, fair and comprehensive new personal conduct policy,'' a league spokesman said on Saturday. "We expect this policy to be completed and announced in the weeks ahead. Our focus is on consistently enforcing an improved policy going forward. Her ruling was about an inadequate policy that we are in the process of fixing.''
The new personal conduct policy Goodell has ordered should more effectively deal with these situations. That way, the focus will be on the behavior that led to the sanctions, not the botched application of the commissioner's discipline.