NEW YORK — An arbitrator on Friday threw out Ray Rice’s indefinite suspension by the NFL for punching his then-fiancee and now wife in a hotel elevator, freeing him to play again.
The NFL said Rice, a free agent, is “eligible to play upon signing a new contract.”
Whether any team will consider signing him is another matter.
Former U.S. District Judge Barbara S. Jones said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s decision in September to change Rice’s original suspension from two games to indefinite was “arbitrary” and an “abuse of discretion.”
Jones was deciding whether the NFL overstepped its authority in modifying Rice’s two-game suspension after video of the Baltimore Ravens running back punching his then-fiancee became public.
Rice was released by the Ravens when the video went public. Rice and the union contended he essentially was sentenced twice, and Jones agreed, saying Rice “did not lie to or mislead the NFL.”
She noted in her decision that after Goodell increased the punishment for a first offense under the personal conduct policy from two to six games, “the commissioner called Rice to assure him that the new policy would not affect him — that it was forward-looking and his penalty would not be increased.”
The punishment changed, though, after the video was released. In her decision, Jones also wrote:
“Because Rice did not mislead the commissioner and because there were no new facts on which the commissioner could base his increased suspension, I find that the imposition of the indefinite suspension was arbitrary. I therefore vacate the second penalty imposed on Rice.
“The provisions of the first discipline — those regarding making continued use of counseling and other professional services, having no further involvement with law enforcement, and not committing any additional violations of league policies — still stand.”
The NFL said it accepted the decision.
“We respect Judge Jones’s decision to reinstate Ray Rice from his indefinite suspension for violating the league’s personal conduct policy in an incident of domestic violence,” spokesman Greg Aiello said in an email to the Associated Press.
“Ray Rice is a free agent and has been eligible to be signed by an NFL team since he was released by the Ravens. Based on Judge Jones’ decision, he will be eligible to play upon signing a new contract.”
But Rice has not played all season and was coming off a weak 2013 season.
And there are the immeasurable public relations issues that could accompany any team signing him — this season or in the future.
Rice said Friday in a statement released by the players’ union:
“I would like to thank Judge Barbara Jones, the NFL Players Association, my attorneys, agents, advisers, family, friends and fans — but most importantly, my wife Janay. I made an inexcusable mistake and accept full responsibility for my actions. I am thankful that there was a proper appeals process in place to address this issue. I will continue working hard to improve myself and be the best husband, father and friend, while giving back to my community and helping others to learn from my mistakes.”
Goodell and the Rices testified at the hearing, as did NFL security chief Jeffrey Miller and Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome.
During his appearance, Goodell told Jones: “I do accept that I have to be consistent with consistent circumstances, and … I think that’s about fairness, and fairness would be, you should be as consistent as possible in your discipline.”
The NFL Players Association claimed a “victory for a disciplinary process that is fair and transparent.” The union again called for collective bargaining to produce a new personal conduct policy.