Asked & Answered: Ron Sutton on the NFL's handling of Ray Rice

 By Jo Mathis

Legal News
In yet another domestic assault issue plaguing the NFL,  Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer was arrested Wednesday on aggravated assault charges.
This follows the recent release of a videotape showing former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancee in an Atlantic City elevator, as well as charges of child abuse against Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy is also involved in a domestic violence case. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has been under fire to resign because before the video emerged, Rice had received only a two-game suspension for the attack.
Sports/entertainment law expert and Western Michigan University Cooley Law School professor and assistant dean Ron Sutton talked to Jo Mathis about the NFL’s handling of the situation.
Mathis: As the former president of Sutton Sports Management Co, you were involved with worldwide representation of professional athletes, coaches and broadcasters. Did you ever have to handle anything like the Ray Rice case?
Sutton: Thankfully, I did not.
Mathis: Is there anything the NFL could have done to prevent the abuse from happening in the first place?
Sutton: The NFL historically has done very little to address the domestic violence perpetrated by its players on their victims. No one can say with any degree of certainty, however, whether the new stronger policies that the NFL recently implemented would have had any effect on Mr. Rice's decision to assault his then girlfriend (now wife) had they been been in place at the time of his offense.
Mathis: Considering the fact that overall arrest rates in the NFL are lower than the general population of men ages 25 to 30, has the media overreacted to this issue?
Sutton: No, not at all. The NFL has a history of domestic violence issues dating back several years which it has largely ignored until being forced to confront them by the social media frenzy over the Rice, Peterson, Hardy and McDonald cases. The NFL has the power to draw attention to domestic violence and to be in the forefront of needed change as to how society views and deals with this issue.
Mathis: How would you rate NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s handling of Ray Rice? And do you agree with those who believe he should be fired?
Sutton: Commissioner Goodell has grossly underestimated the magnitude of the domestic violence issue in the NFL for years. His recent response to the public outrage over his handling of the Rice matter was a delinquent and knee-jerk reaction. I do not think that he will be fired for his inept handling of the Rice case. I do believe that if it is shown in either the Mueller investigation or the Rice appeal that Commissioner Goodell has been less than truthful about what he knew when he suspended Rice, he will probably lose his job.
Mathis: Has the NFL lost its way, as women’s groups claim?
Sutton: The NFL has been reluctant to acknowledge and confront the domestic violence issues that plague not just the NFL, but society as a whole. I do believe that the NFL owners and Commissioner Goodell have received a rude awakening and, at least for now, are racing to make necessary changes to their polices. Only time will tell whether the NFL owners and Commissioner have truly committed to change or not.
Mathis: Do you support Rice’s suspension?
Sutton: I do not believe that the original two game suspension of Mr. Rice was sufficient punishment. However, I am not convinced that the indefinite suspension subsequently imposed by Commissioner Goodell will survive the appeal by the NFLPA.
Mathis: How would you change the NFL with respect to how they deal with domestic violence?
Sutton: I would offer the following. First, the NFL needs to provide more education to the players about the causes and effects of domestic violence on them and their families. Second, the NFL needs to have stringent and consistent policies in place to hold players accountable for any acts of domestic violence and to ensure that any offender receive meaningful counseling and assistance they may need to confront and deal with this problem. Finally, the league needs to offer confidential assistance to spouses, partners and children of players who are the victims of or affected by domestic violence.  
Mathis: Is double jeopardy an issue here? Ray Rice had already been sanctioned once, and was not going to appeal. Is it fair for the NFL to punish him again for the same crime?
Sutton: The NFL's position is that the videotape contradicted Rice's version of what happened inside of the elevator, that the NFL was not aware of the contents of the tape when they issued the two game suspension,  and that the indefinite suspension was warranted by Rice's lack of honesty. That is the subject of Rice's appeal as presented by the NFLPA.
Mathis: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Sutton:  According to the National Coalition of Domestic Violence, approximately 1.3 million women are physically assaulted by their partner every year. We need to recognize that domestic violence is an issue in every facet of society. As attorneys we have a special opportunity to be instruments of change. I hope that individually and as a profession, we commit to accept that responsibility.


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