Sources: Rice told NFL he hit fiancee

ByDon Van Natta Jr. ESPN logo
Friday, September 12, 2014
ESPN

Ray Rice told NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on June 16 that he punched his then-fiancee in a casino elevator, four sources have told "Outside the Lines," an assertion that contradicts Goodell's statement this week that "when we met with Ray Rice and his representatives, it was ambiguous about what actually happened."

Goodell made the statement Tuesday during an interview with CBS News, saying the latest video released by TMZ Sports about the incident was "inconsistent" with what the former Baltimore Ravens running back had told him. But four sources close to Rice say that during the disciplinary meeting in the commissioner's office on June 16, Rice told Goodell he had hit Janay Rice, then his fiancee, in the face inside a Revel Casino Hotel elevator in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and had knocked her unconscious.

"Ray didn't lie to the commissioner," a source with knowledge of the meeting told "Outside the Lines." "He told the full truth to Goodell -- he made it clear he had hit her, and he told Goodell he was sorry and that it wouldn't happen again."

"He told the truth," a second source said. "This is a public lynching of Ray."

A third source with knowledge of Rice's discussion with the commissioner said: "There was no ambiguity about what happened [in the elevator]." A fourth source also confirmed how the information was relayed at the meeting; however, a fifth source with knowledge of the meeting said Rice told Goodell he had "slapped" his fiancee.

The accounts given by the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, contradict Goodell's statement that he did not know precisely what had happened inside the elevator until he watched the TMZ Sports-released videotape on Monday morning. After The Associated Press reported Wednesday that a copy of the in-elevator video was sent by a law enforcement official to an unnamed NFL executive last April, the league announced former FBI chief Robert Mueller III would lead an independent inquiry of the Rice matter, overseen by New York Giants owner John Mara and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II.

The discrepancy raises additional questions about Goodell's decision to give the running back a two-game suspension on July 24 for hitting his now-wife.

In his letter explaining the reasons for the two-game suspension and financial penalties of $500,000, Goodell wrote to Rice, "As you acknowledged during our meeting, your conduct was unquestionably inconsistent with league policies and the standard of behavior required of everyone who is part of the NFL. The league is an entity that depends on integrity and in the confidence of the public, and 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."

Rice's alleged "ambiguity" during his meeting with Goodell may also emerge as an issue in Rice's expected appeal of the league's decision on Monday to suspend him indefinitely. A league disciplinary letter outlining the reasons for Monday's suspension has still not been received by Rice or his representatives, two sources said Thursday. After the letter is received, Rice is planning on filing an appeal of Goodell's suspension of an indefinite number of games.

During the CBS News interview, the network's Norah O'Donnell reminded Goodell that an earlier TMZ Sports-released security camera video, made public last February, showed Rice dragging his fiancee's seemingly unconscious body from the elevator.

"We did not know what led up to that," Goodell replied. "We did not know the details of that. We asked for that on several occasions."

Goodell has said the league asked for the video from four law enforcement agencies shortly after the incident and again after Rice was accepted into a pre-trial intervention program on May 20.

Besides the first TMZ video and Rice's own account during the June 16 meeting of what happened, Goodell also had access to an Atlantic City Municipal Court complaint, dated Feb. 15, which is public record. The complaint alleges Rice committed "assault by attempting to cause bodily injury to J. Palmer, specifically by striking [her] with [his] hand, rendering her unconscious, at the Revel casino."

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello declined to comment Thursday afternoon.

Rice's lawyer, Michael J. Diamondstein, declined to comment.

A representative of the players' union also declined to comment.

Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome said this week that Rice was truthful about what happened inside the elevator -- as seen in the video released Monday -- in conversations he had had with him and Ravens coach John Harbaugh. "You know, Ray had given a story to John and I," Newsome told The Baltimore Sun. "And what we saw on the video was what Ray said. Ray didn't lie to me. He didn't lie to me."

On Wednesday, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti appeared to contradict Newsome in a WBAL-TV interview in Baltimore, though: "The way it was described to us was that he had hit her with an open hand and that she had hit her head."

Goodell never said Rice had lied to him at the meeting, but he said that Rice's "ambiguous" comments were "not consistent with what was on that video. And when we saw that video it was clear what happened."

But a source close to Rice disputed that characterization. "Ray has never tried to hide what he did here," the source said. "He's told everyone the truth."

The June 16 meeting in Goodell's Manhattan office was attended by Rice, his wife, two players' union representatives, Newsome and Ravens president Dick Cass. The presence of two Ravens executives was unusual, multiple sources have told "Outside the Lines." Team executives rarely accompany players to disciplinary meetings with Goodell, according to several lawyers who have represented players and coaches on NFL disciplinary matters.

"It's highly unusual," said lawyer Peter Ginsberg, who has represented several dozen disciplinary cases of players and coaches before the NFL during Goodell's tenure. "I've never had a GM or an owner attend any proceeding involving players or coaches. In one particular instance, an owner was discouraged by the league from attending."

A league source said it was not unusual, though, for disciplinary hearings to be attended by team owners, team presidents and general managers.

Goodell was accompanied at the meeting by Adolpho Birch, the league's senior vice president for labor policy, and Jeff Pash, the NFL's general counsel.

During the meeting, a source said, Rice's wife asked Goodell not to harm Rice's career or his image with the public with severe sanctions. She had also assured the commissioner that the incident in the elevator was the only time Rice had struck her.

The Wall Street Journal on Thursday afternoon reported that a team owner said Goodell didn't punish Rice more harshly out of respect for Rice's wife and also because Goodell heard Janay Rice say that she had struck Rice as well. The story also said that Goodell "said he left the meeting believing that Janay Rice had become unconscious because she had fallen during the scuffle," according to the owner.

On July 24, Goodell announced that he was suspending Rice for the first two games of the 2014 season. "I believe you are sincere in your desire to learn from this matter and move forward toward a healthy relationship and successful career," Goodell wrote to Rice.

Goodell was also apparently swayed by Rice's acceptance into a pre-trial intervention program (PTI), which mandated counseling and other requirements in exchange for the charges to be dropped and kept off his record. An Atlantic County grand jury increased the charges to aggravated assault in the third degree to cause bodily injury, presumably after watching the videotape of Rice striking his wife inside the elevator.

Legal advocates for battered women and defense lawyers told "Outside the Lines" it is highly unusual for such a case to be accepted into the pre-trial intervention program. The decision to allow Rice into the program meant he would not have a conviction on his record if he met court-mandated requirements. The decision was signed off on by a PTI court official, a prosecutor and a judge.

When Goodell decided to suspend Rice for two games, several NFL reporters, including a story by Peter King of Sports Illustrated, reported that the PTI result in Atlantic County was one of the factors that influenced Goodell when he decided on the length of the suspension.

On Wednesday, Atlantic County prosecutor James P. McClain defended referring Rice to pre-trial intervention and allowing him to avoid trial. The decision was made "after careful consideration of the law, careful consideration of the facts, hearing the voice of the victim and considering all the parameters," McClain told the Press of Atlantic City.

"People need to understand: The choice was not PTI versus five years' state prison," McClain said. "The choice was not PTI versus the No Early Release Act on a 10-year sentence. The parameters, as they existed, were: Is this a PTI case or a probation case?"

A spokesman for the Atlantic County prosecutor's office declined to release data on the number of aggravated assault in the third degree by causing bodily harm cases that were referred to the pre-trial intervention program. ESPN has filed a public records request seeking the information. On Tuesday, ESPN sent a public records request to the Atlantic County prosecutor's office, the Atlantic City clerk and the Atlantic City police department requesting records of all correspondence of anyone in those offices with anyone from the NFL or Ravens, including any requests the league or team would have made of records in the case, such as the video, from Feb. 15, to present. Under state law, the agencies must respond by Thursday, Sept. 18.

On Aug. 28, 11 days before the TMZ Sports video was released, Goodell wrote a letter to all 32 owners that toughened the league's domestic violence policy to a mandatory six-game suspension for a first offense. "I didn't get it right," he said. "Simply put, we have to do better. And we will."

On Tuesday, Goodell acknowledged he did not need to see a video of Rice hitting his wife to determine a suitable punishment, repeating again that the two-game suspension was a mistake.

"And I will tell you that what we saw on the first videotape was troubling to us in and of itself," Goodell told CBS News. "And that's why we took the action we took. As I've said before, we didn't feel that was sufficient. We didn't get that right. But what we saw [Monday] was extremely clear, it was extremely graphic and it was sickening."

NFL insider Adam Schefter contributed to this report.

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