In a rare mea culpa, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Thursday that he had mishandled the Ray Rice case, in which the Baltimore Ravens running back was suspended for two games after being accused of assaulting his fiancée.
The suspension, announced late last month, led to an instant and furious uproar from women's groups, organizations supporting victims of domestic violence and even players who felt the penalty was too light and inconsistent with punishments for other offences.
"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," Mr. Goodell said in a statement. "I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn't get it right. Simply put, we have to do better. And we will."
Mr. Goodell said that in the future any NFL employee – not just a player – who is found to have engaged in assault, battery, domestic violence or sexual assault that involved physical force will be suspended without pay for six games for a first offence. Second-time offenders will be banished from the league for at least one year.
Mr. Goodell said that second-time offenders can petition to be reinstated after one year, but "there will be no presumption or assurance that the petition will be granted."
The about-face by the most powerful executive in U.S. sports was stunning in its earnestness and clarity. The commissioner wrote frequently in the first person and admitted that he had lost sight not only of seriousness of domestic violence, but the league's role as a leader in the sports world. Coming a month after the suspension of Mr. Rice, Mr. Goodell's decision appeared considered, not rushed.
But it also one of the few times during his eight-year tenure that Mr. Goodell has publicly admitted to making such a mistake. Since becoming commissioner in 2006, he has grappled with one crisis after another, from players using guns to spying by teams to bullying and the use of homophobic and racist language by players. He has rarely backpedalled on his decisions even in the face of withering criticism.
Perhaps most significantly, Mr. Goodell has equivocated on the issue of concussions and their effect on the health of players. For years, Mr. Goodell and the league dismissed mounting evidence about the dangers of repeated head hits, including in front of members of the United States Congress.
The league has since changed rules and pledged tens of millions of dollars to study the effect of concussions, but the commissioner has never acknowledged the league's past role in trying to sidestep the issue.
Groups that criticized Mr. Goodell for being insensitive to the issue of domestic abuse took him at his word and applauded him for reversing course.
"This decision by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to change the league's policy on how it disciplines players who beat their wives and girlfriends is a big win, not just for women, but for all NFL players, staff and fans," said Becky Bond, the political director of CREDO, a women's rights group.
The NFL Players Association, which has often been at loggerheads with the commissioner over his penalties for players, did not endorse Mr. Goodell's tougher stance. In a statement, the union said only that it was informed of the NFL's decision and that "if we believe that players' due process rights are infringed upon during the course of discipline, we will assert and defend our members' rights."
While other leagues employ an independent arbitrator to hear player appeals, the NFL is essentially the judge and jury in disciplinary cases not covered by the collective bargaining agreement. This led many commentators to compare Rice's two-game suspension for knocking out his fiancée in an elevator to the four-game suspensions handed out for players who violated the league's drug policy.