AP National Writer
It’s an enduring fact of life in the NFL: If a player has talent, a team will find a place for him, no matter how bad his off-the-field profile might be.
Ray Rice is putting that maxim to the test, as much for the deed he did as the fact that it was documented in a stomach-turning video that will be available forever.
After suspending him indefinitely, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell left the door open for Rice’s return, telling CBS, “We would have to make sure that we are fully confident that he is addressing this issue. Clearly, he has paid a price for the actions that he has already taken.”
Second chances are nothing new in the NFL. The most notable recent case involved Michael Vick’s return after serving what amounted to a two-year suspension for running a dogfighting ring — a crime for which he served 18 months in prison.
There was no video evidence in the Vick case as visceral and direct as what’s available at the click of a button in Rice’s case.
That, along with the obvious — Vick was torturing dogs while Rice landed a punch to his fiancee’s face — are the key differences that will make Rice’s road back that much more difficult, says crisis-management expert Jonathan Bernstein.
Bernstein says any thoughts Rice is giving to rehabilitating his public image should be focused on things outside the football field.
“I’d say, you go deep under cover, stay out of the public eye,” Bernstein said. “Let it be known through other people what you’re doing to rehabilitate your behavior, then, ultimately, start getting involved in charitable things and other do-good efforts to show you care about this issue.”
Time does allow people to forgive and forget, Bernstein says. But he adds that it is hard to imagine any team signing a player whose reputation is forever sullied by a video that will show up every time his name is typed in on Google.
“There have been examples of people who committed a violent crime and got away with it at a time when the public could hear the allegation but not see the blatant evidence,” Bernstein said. “That’s not the case here, and you can’t put that cat back in the bag.”
Bernstein said he was stunned Goodell hadn’t completely shut the door on Rice. “After everything that has happened, that’s insane. It calls into question his entire credibility as a representative for the NFL,” he said.
The commissioner’s credibility gap has only grown since he made that statement, most notably after The Associated Press reported a league official had been provided the Rice video back in April, which countered Goodell’s statement that the NFL asked for but had not received it.
The league responded to that news by putting former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III in charge of an investigation into the league’s handling of the case.
Attorney Harvey Steinberg, who has represented numerous NFL players in cases against the league, believes the NFL’s lack of credibility leaves an opening for Rice, who could argue he’s been dealt with arbitrarily. First, Rice was given a two-game suspension. Then, the NFL created a new policy that called for a six-game suspension for first-time domestic violence offenders. Then, Goodell suspended Rice indefinitely, even though that wasn’t an option spelled out under the new policy.
“Obviously, Ray Rice is a pariah and it’s easy for the NFL to dump on a pariah,” Steinberg said. “It’s much more difficult for them to stand up and say, ‘Look, we made a decision based on the facts. The only thing that’s different is, now there’s a video that’s problematic, graphic and abhorrent, but it simply confirms what we already knew, so we have to stand by our decision.’ That’s what I’m concerned about.”
If Rice were to be cleared, there’s also the matter — trivial as it may seem in the light of his transgression — of whether he can still play.
He is 27 — on the old side for a running back in a league that doesn’t value that position as much anymore — and his 2013 rushing numbers (660 yards) were about 40 percent lower than in 2012.
It shouldn’t matter but it almost certainly does in a league that welcomes back Vick, a league that still hasn’t shut the door on Richie Incognito, the offensive lineman suspended last season for bullying a teammate while in Miami. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers gave him a tryout last month.
Vick, now playing for the Jets after making his initial comeback with the Eagles, said almost everyone deserves a second chance, including Rice.
“But there’s going to be a grace period and we all just have to sit back and reflect on what’s been done,” Vick said.
But his opinion is hardly unanimous. In addition to deciding whether they want to deal with the public-relations backlash that would come with signing Rice, an NFL team would have to make a judgment on whether Rice’s presence would tear apart a locker room.
“I don’t think there’s any place for him,” said Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton, a vociferous critic of Rice’s as soon as the video came out. “I wouldn’t want him to play on this team. I wouldn’t talk to him. I wouldn’t speak to him. I wouldn’t engage anything with him off the field. That’s just something I strongly believe in.”
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver and Dennis Waszak Jr., in New York contributed to this report.
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