By Michael Truong – Thompson Rivers University 3L JD Student
Recently, the National Football League (NFL) has come under intense scrutiny not for the violence on the field but off of it. Ray Rice, a running back for the Baltimore Ravens, is at the centre of the NFL’s domestic violence controversy.
Early in 2014, Rice was arrested for assaulting his then-fiancée and now wife, Janay Palmer. Shortly after, TMZ released a video of Rice dragging an unconscious Palmer out of an elevator. The NFL responded by suspending Rice for two games. In September of 2014, TMZ released a more complete video, which showed Rice punching Palmer in the face rendering her unconscious and then dragging her out of the elevator. The Baltimore Ravens terminated Rice’s contract while the NFL suspended him indefinitely.
There is little doubt that Ray Rice deserves a significant punishment from the league. That much is clear. Given that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell initially punished Rice with a two-game suspension, should he have been able to substitute the two-game suspension with an indefinite one based solely on the new video evidence? While Section 4 of Article 46 of the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement (NFL CBA), also known as the “One Penalty Rule”, bars discipline of a player for the same act by both the Commissioner and the team, there is no similar provision in the NFL CBA that addresses whether the Commissioner can alter punishments already handed down. The NFL Constitution and the NFL Personal Conduct Policy are also silent.
Had Commissioner Goodell suspended Rice indefinitely from the outset, Rice would have had far less legal flexibility because the NFL Personal Conduct Policy gives the league wide discretion to punish players for conduct detrimental to the league. Given that Commissioner Goodell did not “get it right” the first time, it seems natural that the concept of double jeopardy should warrant some consideration. While the rule of double jeopardy may not readily apply in this case, particularly because a collective bargaining agreement governs the relationship between the NFLPA and the NFL, Rice may nevertheless be able to mount a compelling argument that Commissioner Goodell overstepped his authority by essentially handing down two punishments for the same act.
According to the timeline of events, TMZ released the first security video in early 2014, Rice apologized a few months later, and then the Commissioner handed down the initial suspension. While “new” video evidence subsequently emerged, the facts of the situation remained largely unchanged. The league claimed it never saw the second video but this implies that had it seen the video, the result would have been different. In reality, the increased penalty was more likely the result of the video being released to the public and Commissioner Goodell acquiescing to public outrage.
Commissioner Goodell had access to the first video which depicted Rice dragging a limp Palmer from the elevator. How did he honestly think Palmer became unconscious? With Rice’s statements that he “made the biggest mistake of [his] life” and his actions “were totally inexcusable” alongside the video evidence, the league knew that violence was involved. Should the manner in which Palmer was rendered unconscious have justified increasing an already imposed penalty? Rice admitted his role, if not explicitly then at least implicitly, and he accepted responsibility; thus, the Commissioner’s increased penalty looks like a second punishment. If Section 4 of Article 46 of the NFL CBA precludes disciplining a player for the same act by both the Commissioner and the team, surely the “One Penalty Rule” can be read as also barring the Commissioner, or the team, from punishing a player twice for the same act.
This is supported by the apparent finality of the initial suspension. Double jeopardy hinges on the idea that an individual cannot be placed in jeopardy twice for the same offence. The assumption is that the initial punishment is final; if not, then double jeopardy does not apply. The NFL would be hard-pressed to assert that Rice’s initial two-game suspension was not the end of the matter, especially since the decision was made following a hearing and not appealed. Seeing as the NFL CBA and the NFL Constitution are silent as to whether the Commissioner can increase or substitute an already imposed punishment, the NFLPA’s next step should be to address this glaring hole.