Facing aggravated-assault charges from that incident, Rice later agreed to a plea bargain that allowed him to participate in an intervention program and avoid jail, but in the aftermath of Rice's sentencing, there would always be his day of reckoning with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
Roger Goodell, whose league suspended Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon for an entire season for using marijuana; Minnesota Vikings assistant coach Mike Priefer for three games for using a gay slur; Seattle Seahawks quarterback Terrelle Pryor for five games for trading memorabilia for tattoos while in college; and, just this week, Eagles tackle Lane Johnson for four games for using a performance-enhancing substance. Roger Goodell, the arbiter of all that is righteous in professional football.
Roger Goodell, whose league suspended Ray Rice on Thursday for two games.
Understand: In meting out punishment, Goodell and the NFL don't necessarily have to be bound by due process or the rules of evidence or any of the laws and protections that provide the foundation of our legal system, and Goodell long ago made it clear that he would not be bound by much of anything, establishing himself as prosecutor, judge, and jury in any matter that threatened to taint the league's image. But to maintain any sense of credibility, at a minimum he and the NFL should be bound by a discernible moral code, and by limiting Rice's suspension to two games, they are establishing a twisted hierarchy of values with respect to what they consider to be acceptable behavior.
Recreational drug use, NCAA violations that predate a player's pro career, verbal insults - to the NFL, all of these, somehow, are worse than physically abusing a woman. And if Johnson is telling the truth that he inadvertently took a prescribed medication that is on the league's list of banned substances, then a player's honest mistake about what he can put into his body so he can perform on Sundays is also a more egregious act than Rice's alleged assault, according to the NFL.
Goodell issued a statement Thursday that said he believed Rice's regret over the incident was sincere, but "we simply cannot tolerate conduct that endangers others or reflects negatively on our game. This is particularly true with respect to domestic violence and other forms of violence against women." They were tough words, but they were empty ones, as if Goodell's merely saying that he was coming down hard on Rice made it so, and they were eclipsed in absurdity only by the NFL Network anchor who said Rice had faced "the iron fist of the NFL."
Rice stood to receive $4 million in base salary this season. Even with the suspension, he will pocket $3.53 million. Some iron fist.
(A word about the NFL Network: I have some dear and talented friends who work there, and the network produces some entertaining programming. But as Thursday's events reaffirmed, no one, including those network employees who had once been reporters or editors for independent media outlets, should be under any illusions about what its function is: to promote and lend a veneer of self-oversight to the richest and most powerful sports entity in the United States.)
Meanwhile, Johnson's suspension will cost him $116,470, nearly a quarter of his $495,000 base salary this season, a sizable chunk for a young player still under his rookie contract and trying to raise a family.
Johnson has a wife, Chelsea, and an 11-month-old son, Jace, and the damage from his apparent mistake and the NFL's distorted sense of justice touches them, too. It's more than the money. It's so much more than the money. It's the prospect of Lane Johnson's someday showing that grainy video from that February night in Atlantic City to his son and having to explain why what he did was twice as bad as what Ray Rice did - why, in the eyes of Roger Goodell and the National Football League, Daddy would have been better off had he just knocked Mommy cold.