- The Washington Times - Monday, September 1, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The NFL doesn’t kick off until Thursday but the season’s first result is in.

Congratulations, Ray McDonald! You just won the league’s “Bad Timing” Award!

Maybe the 49ers defensive tackle never heard the hubbub surrounding Ray Rice this summer. Maybe McDonald was unaware of San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh’s thoughts on domestic violence.

McDonald certainly must’ve missed last week’s news on NFL discipline for that offense.

Other than sheer stupidity, there are no other explanations for McDonald's arrest on suspicion of felony domestic abuse early Sunday morning.

According to The Sacramento Bee and other media reports, McDonald was involved in an altercation with his fiancée at his birthday party. She showed police minor bruises on her neck and arms and he was arrested without incident, charged with “inflicting injury on a spouse or cohabitant.”

What was he thinking?

Just two days earlier, commissioner Roger Goodell issued a mea culpa for the league’s handling of Rice, who in late July received a measly two-game suspension for a domestic violence incident. “I didn’t get it right,” Goodell wrote in a letter to the owners. “Simply put, we have to do better. And we will.

“… 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.”

The letter included information on “enhanced discipline,” effective immediately. Little did we know Goodell would have a chance to back up his words so soon.

Harbaugh also has an opportunity to prove he meant business when he said domestic violence wouldn’t be tolerated on his team.

“He said that we can do anything in the world and we can come and talk to him and he’ll forgive us except put our hands on women,” former 49ers safety Donte Whitmer said in 2012, according to The (Santa Rosa, Calif.) Press Democrat. “If you put your hand on a woman, then you’re done in his book.”

That’s not necessarily a zero-tolerance policy, though it sure sounds like one.

Conversely, Goodell took a stance that’s anything but concrete, yet it was widely hailed as cut-and-dried.

Friday’s headlines and reports trumpeted the NFL’s “new policy” on domestic violence. They credited Goodell for “sweeping changes” in instituting a “six-month suspension” for first-time offenders and a “lifetime ban” for repeat offenders.

But like many things in life and business, appearances can be deceiving. Truth resides in the fine print, often between the lines.

As pointed out so astutely by Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky, “the NFL’s new rules on domestic violence are neither new nor are they rules.”

Goodell’s letter achieved the desired effect of turning criticism into applause. But in the end, domestic violence still falls under the NFL’s Personal Conduct Code. He’s still the judge, jury and executioner with limitless power and discretion.

Even the staunchest advocates for women’s rights can agree there are different levels of violence. I don’t condone either action, but a slight shove and a left hook aren’t the same offense and shouldn’t automatically be judged as such. It makes sense when punishments include leeway for the facts of each incident on a case-by-case basis.

Upon closer inspection of the letter, we see the “six-game suspension” can be longer or shorter after considering “mitigating factors.” And that “lifetime suspension?” Individuals may petition for reinstatement after one year. But fear not:

There’s “no presumption or assurance that the petition will be granted.”

I suppose unstated mitigating factors might include a player’s position (quarterback or long snapper?), his prominence (All-Pro or practice squad?) and his significant other’s presence (on hand for the press-conference apology or nowhere in sight?).

Factors the league likely will admit are past behavior, severity of injuries, pregnancy, children present, etc.

Under the terms Goodell laid out, there’s no guarantee that Rice would’ve received a six-game suspension. But McDonald can count on a half-dozen games, even though causing minor bruises is nothing like knocking someone unconscious.

McDonald is a knucklehead if he put his hands on his fiancée at all, but doubly so for positioning himself to be a guinea pig after Rice’s incident led to heightened awareness.

Now McDonald will bear the brunt of the public’s outrage and pent-up frustration that the Ravens halfback got off lightly. And Goodell will use his letter and McDonald's ill-timed brainlessness for undeserved cover.

However, the sole problem — Goodell as the sole arbiter — remains the same.

It worked out great for Rice.

But McDonald picked the worst time to try his luck with the commish.

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