Arbiter orders NFL commissioner to testify in hearing on Rice appeal

An ugly chapter in this year’s NFL season may get even uglier in a couple of weeks. Former Baltimore running back Ray Rice and the NFL Players Association filed an appeal of the additional punishment Rice received when explicit video of his assault on his then-girlfriend-and-now-wife emerged after Rice got a much-criticized two-game suspension. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended him for the season, claiming Rice had misled him about the nature of the attack, but Rice insisted that he told Goodell and team officials what happened — and that they had access to the videotape anyway.

Oddly, Goodell has tried to keep from being deposed in the matter, and the league has tried to offer other witnesses in his place, even though the commissioner claimed he was personally misled as a reason for extending the punishment. The agreed-upon arbiter told the league yesterday that they had to produce Goodell for the hearing, according to a source for the Associated Press:

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has been told to testify in Ray Rice’s appeal of his indefinite suspension, a person familiar with the case told The Associated Press on Wednesday night.

Former U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones, the neutral arbiter selected to hear the appeal, informed the parties of her decision Wednesday. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the appeal have not been made public. …

NFL lawyers have argued that Goodell shouldn’t have to testify, and instead were offering testimony from Jeff Pash, the NFL’s general counsel, and Adolpho Birch, the NFL’s vice president for labor policy. Pash and Birch were with Goodell when he met with Rice’s side in June to talk about what happened when the former Pro Bowl running back hit his then-fiancee in an elevator.

Rice described details of the incident at that meeting. Goodell has called Rice’s description “ambiguous” while Rice’s side has maintained he gave exact details.

The hearing will be held Nov. 5 and 6, two people familiar with the case told the AP on Tuesday.

It’s at least curious that Goodell is resisting the opportunity to testify so energetically. Goodell is the one who claims to have been misled, and he certainly showed no shyness in publicizing the extended penalties when Goodell announced that Rice’s suspension would be indefinite. He practically claimed to be a victim of Rice’s dishonesty in taking a second bite at the apple on the same incident that Goodell originally thought would be worth only a two-game suspension. If that’s the case, doesn’t Goodell himself have to make it in the hearing? Neither Pash nor Birch made the final decision on the extended suspension, after all.

It’s pretty easy to guess why Goodell doesn’t want to face Rice’s attorneys on the record. One particular question Goodell will face will be what exactly didn’t he understand from the first video and Rice’s admission that he had punched his wife hard enough to knock her out? The second video is certainly inflammatory in its graphic depiction of Rice’s violence against his wife, but it told us nothing that wasn’t easily surmised from the first video showing him dragging her out of the elevator.

This is not a criminal proceeding, though, and Jones does not have subpoena power, so Goodell may choose to ignore the summons. If he does, though, Jones could easily rule against the league and reverse Rice’s suspension, which would immediately make him available to any NFL team willing to suffer some bad PR for a well-rested, top-level running back. I’d guess that among the 31 teams in the league that at least half of them would be willing to endure a few weeks of condemnation to put Rice in their backfield. If Goodell wants to prevent that, then he’d better show up — and he’d better have more believable answers than he’s been giving so far.