NEW YORK, N.Y. - An arbitrator Friday threw out Ray Rice's indefinite suspension by the NFL for hitting 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 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 Janay became public.
Rice was released by the Ravens when the video went public. Rice and the union contended he was essentially 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 offence 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 counselling 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 is 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" in a statement. The union called again for collective bargaining to produce a new personal conduct policy.
To which NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy added:
"Judge Jones' ruling underscores the urgency of our work to develop and implement a clear, fair and comprehensive new personal conduct policy. We expect this policy to be completed and announced in the weeks ahead. Our focus is on consistently enforcing an improved policy going forward."
The National Organization for Women again called for Goodell's resignation and an independent investigation into the NFL's response to domestic violence incidents.
"Instead of listening to the multiple domestic violence experts that have approached Goodell throughout his tenure," NOW President Terry O'Neill said in a statement, "he continues to diminish, evade, and deny the realities of the problem. Instead of working to keep Janay Rice safe, he removed economic security from her and her abuser — a known cause of increasing the risk of domestic homicide."
One fan in Baltimore supported Rice, but not Goodell.
"I don't condone what he's done, but the commissioner was way out of line," said Andrew Offord. "Double jeopardy? You can't do that. Public opinion and backlash made the NFL change its mind on the punishment and that was wrong.
"I think for a team in a desperate situation — not this year, but maybe next year if someone gets injured — Rice might get another shot. But I don't know if the commissioner deserves another shot."
AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi and AP Writer Juliet Linderman contributed to this report.
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