The NFL is immediately implementing a sweeping domestic violence initiative that calls for a six-game suspension for a first offense and a lifetime ban from the league for a second offense.
The measures, announced in a letter from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to all team owners, a copy of which was obtained by ESPN, are due in part to widespread criticism Goodell received for his handling of discipline for Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. The two-game suspension for Rice left many with the impression that the NFL did not understand domestic violence or take it seriously as a crime. Goodell acknowledged as much in the letter.
"At times, however, and despite our best efforts, we fall short of our goals," Goodell wrote. "We clearly did so in response to a recent incident of domestic violence. ... My disciplinary decision led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values.
"I didn't get it right."
The letter states that the six-game suspension for a first offense could be increased in some cases.
"Among the circumstances that would merit a more severe penalty would be a prior incident before joining the NFL, or violence involving a weapon, choking, repeated striking, or when the act is committed against a pregnant woman or in the presence of a child," the letter read. "A second offense will result in banishment from the NFL."
Players would be able to apply for reinstatement. The letter states that the policy applies to all NFL personnel, not just players.
In February, Rice was arrested on a charge of aggravated assault after knocking out his girlfriend in an elevator in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Surveillance video showed Rice dragging then-girlfriend Janay Palmer, who appeared unconscious, out of the elevator. Unreleased video showed Rice striking Palmer in the elevator.
In July, Goodell announced that Rice would be suspended for the first two games of the regular season. There was deep and sustained criticism from fans and groups who work with victims of domestic violence. The number of games was less than the suspension given for most other infractions, such as substance abuse, steroid use or DUI offenses. The penalty for those items is determined by the collective bargaining agreement hammered out with the players' union in 2011.
Domestic violence infractions, however, fall under the personal conduct policy, which meant that Goodell alone was able to determine the severity of any fine or suspension. The fact that the Ravens held a press conference with Rice in May and had Janay sitting next to him on the dais also seemed to imply she shared responsibility -- whether or not that was the intention.
The fact that Goodell reportedly allowed Janay Rice into the hearing to plead for leniency in front of her husband's employers struck many as inappropriate.
"Having done this work for many years, often a victim will say she doesn't want the abuser punished," said Judy Kluger, a former New York City judge and current executive director of Sanctuary for Families, after the decision was announced. "That shouldn't deter what an independent organization decides to do."