When Ray Rice was arrested for assaulting his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, the NFL waited for months to act, then suspended Rice for just two games, eager to put the incident behind them.

When public outcry over the short suspension got too hot, the NFL introduced a new, tougher domestic violence policy, eager to put a stent on the negative publicity.

And when video later surfaced of Rice knocking Palmer unconscious with a single punch, the league suspended him indefinitely, eager to appear as shocked and disgusted as everyone else, even though NFL officials were already aware of the full, violent story.

Now that an arbitrator has ended that chain of cynical missteps by overturning Rice’s indefinite suspension, we are left to review a case that put domestic violence front and center in the national consciousness. And it is a case that will be remembered for the video, which forced the NFL to reckon with its hands-off approach to domestic violence, and many others to see the true brutality of it.

The ruling in Rice’s favor — handed down by Barbara Jones, a former U.S. District Court judge acting as an independent arbitrator — had little to do with the night of Feb. 15, when surveillance video from a casino in Atlantic City, N.J., shows Rice knocking out Palmer in an elevator and then dragging her through a lobby.

Instead, the decision was about how the NFL — specifically its commissioner, Roger Goodell — extended the initial suspension after the second video, the one showing Rice hit Palmer, came to light, even though league officials, through Rice’s own statements, knew all along what had happened in that elevator.

Also counting against the league were the 20 incidents of domestic violence since 2007 involving NFL players. As Jones noted in her ruling, none of those players received more than a two-game suspension.

It’s also worth noting that their cases did not receive anything close to the attention that Rice’s has.

But whether Rice has the right to put on an NFL uniform again is not the point. The point is that, now and forever, when an athlete commits domestic violence, his team and his league will remember the Rice case and know what awaits them if they handle it poorly.

The point is that when someone describes the depth of the domestic violence problem throughout the country — in Maine, more than 5,000 domestic assaults are reported every year — we can, having seen the Rice video, know just what that means. The elevator in Atlantic City could just as easily be a living room in our own community.

After the Rice case, the NFL can no longer downplay domestic violence, and no one can say they don’t know what it looks like.

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