Acknowledging he "didn't get it right" with a two-game suspension for Ravens running back Ray Rice, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced tougher penalties for players accused of domestic violence, including six weeks for a first offence and at least a year for a second.
In a letter sent to all 32 team owners Thursday and obtained by The Associated Press, Goodell never mentions Rice by name but makes clear references to the Baltimore player who was charged with assault after being caught on video dragging his then-fiancee off a casino elevator.
"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," Goodell wrote. "I didn't get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will."
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Since January 2000, 77 players have been involved in 85 domestic violence incidents with six being cut by their teams, according to USA Today's NFL Arrests Database. The NFL suspended six players for one game each, and Rice was the second player to be suspended for two games.
Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy was convicted in July of assaulting his ex-girlfriend and has appealed for a jury trial set for November. His league punishment has not been announced. Goodell's letter doesn't state clearly how the league will handle pending cases and NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an email, "Each case will be addressed individually on its merits."
Outrage over Rice's punishment prompted three members of Congress to write to the commissioner asking him to reconsider Rice's suspension; the governor of Maine also threatened to boycott the league, and numerous groups that advocate for women and families condemned the penalty as too lenient.
The commissioner told teams to distribute his memo to all players and to post it in locker rooms. It reads in part: "Domestic violence and sexual assault are wrong. They are illegal. They are never acceptable and have no place in the NFL under any circumstances."
The memo says that violations of the league's personal conduct policy "regarding assault, battery, domestic violence and sexual assault that involve physical force will be subject to enhanced discipline."
The NFL Players Association said it had been informed of the increased punishments.
"As we do in all disciplinary matters, if we believe that players' due process rights are infringed upon during the course of discipline, we will assert and defend our members' rights," the union statement said.
The personal conduct policy is not subject to collective bargaining with the players' union, and the commissioner has leeway to impose punishments for such off-field violations. Goodell's statement also did not stipulate whether the commissioner would act before a player is formally charged.
"We particularly applaud your decision to impose tougher penalties, and to give serious consideration to circumstances that may warrant even harsher consequences," said Esta Soler, chief executive of the advocacy group "Futures Without Violence," who met last week with Goodell.
"We know that this is not an issue that can be addressed overnight, and intimate partner violence will not be eliminated by tougher game penalties alone," the statement continued. Goodell promised more training and education for staff and players.
Rice's suspension begins Saturday. He has never said exactly what happened in the elevator, and he and the woman in the video are now married. Rice apologized publicly and said his actions were "totally inexcusable."
An initial domestic violence offence will draw a six-week ban without pay, although the memo says "more severe discipline will be imposed if there are aggravating circumstances such as the presence or use of a weapon, choking, repeated striking, or when the act is committed against a pregnant woman or in the presence of a child."
A second offence will result in banishment from the league, but a player will be allowed to petition for reinstatement after a year.
"There is no assurance that the petition will be granted," the memo says.
Goodell's letter notes other steps the league will take to "strengthen our policies on domestic violence and sexual assault," including efforts to educate all NFL employees on the subject.