(Reuters) - Former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice has won an appeal of his indefinite suspension for domestic violence and is now eligible to sign with any National Football League team, the league said on Friday.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Rice, 27, in July for two games for punching his then-fiancee Janay Palmer unconscious during an altercation at an Atlantic City, New Jersey, casino in February.
But after elevator security video surfaced in September of Rice’s one-punch knockout, the Baltimore Ravens released the three-time Pro Bowler, and his $35 million contract, and the NFL suspended him indefinitely.
The hearing officer in the appeal this month concluded that Rice did not mislead Goodell when he disciplined Rice the first time and therefore the commissioner acted arbitrarily in imposing a second, harsher punishment based on the same incident and known facts.
“I do not doubt that viewing the video in September evoked horror in commissioner Goodell as it did with the public. But this does not change the fact that Rice did not lie or mislead the NFL at the June 16 meeting,” former U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Jones said.
Rice said in a statement on Friday that he made “an inexcusable mistake.” He said he accepts responsibility and will work to improve himself as a husband while giving back to the community.
“I am thankful that there was a proper appeals process in place to address this issue,” he said.
The NFL said in a statement that it respects the judge’s decision, and that Rice is a free agent and would be eligible to play upon signing a new contract.
Although Rice is now allowed to return to the league, it remained unclear if any team would sign him.
Rice had pleaded not guilty in May to one count of third-degree aggravated assault and was entered into a pre-trial intervention program for first-time offenders.
Goodell’s handling of the case raised questions about the effectiveness of the NFL’s response to domestic violence and prompted an independent investigation led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller. The incident fueled a public backlash and one of the biggest crises in the most popular U.S. sport.
The decision in favor of Rice was criticized by anti-sexism group UltraViolet, which said on Friday it was indicative of the NFL’s “long history of sweeping abuse under the rug.”
Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Chicago and David Bailey in Minneapolis; Additional reporting by Steve Ginsburg in Washington; Editing by Mohammad Zargham