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The fallout from the NFL's mishandling of the Ray Rice case goes beyond his contract status. It also lies in the tale of Panthers star Greg Hardy, whose own domestic violence case exposes the holes in the league's discipline policy—and shows how the commissioner's weakness leaves teams to make their own ...

ARE YOU ready for some football? Last week the question felt less like a grab-the-beer-and-chips rallying cry and more like a moral referendum: There were heavy doses of unease mixed with the anticipation an NFL weekend usually brings. Yes, the Bills sold for $1.4 billion, in the latest example of the league's status as a profit-minting behemoth, and yes, CBS kicked off its new Thursday Night Football franchise with the network's highest ratings in that time slot in seven years. But after a week of unrelenting missteps and public outrage that might be unprecedented in American sports, it wasn't just that the NFL's seemingly impenetrable shield felt badly dented, the league's ugly underbelly exposed. The whole sanctimonious metaphor had been mocked.

Greg Hardy felt no such qualms: You're damn right he was ready for some football. The Panthers' star defensive end—the man with the most sacks in the NFL over the last two seasons; a Pro Bowler paid almost $1 million a game—arrived in the players' lot at Bank of America Stadium at roughly 11 a.m. on Sunday. He entered the facility, presumably to put on his game face, much more than a figurative ritual for him given his trademark war paint and Kraken alter ego.

Hardy, though, was soon told that he would need no war paint that day. In the wake of the infamous Ray Rice video released by TMZ on Sept. 8, public outrage over Hardy's own record of domestic violence had been slowly building. The Ravens cut their running back within hours of the public's seeing footage of him knocking his then fiancée unconscious, and now the Panthers had a choice to make: Less than two hours before they took the field against the Lions, they deactivated Hardy, who had gone unpunished by the league despite being convicted of domestic-abuse-related charges in July.

The Vikings faced a similar choice with respect to Adrian Peterson, the Pro Bowl running back who last Friday was charged with child abuse. He too was deactivated on Sunday. The 49ers, meanwhile, ignored the chatter that they should do the same with Ray McDonald, the defensive end who is under investigation for allegedly striking his pregnant fiancée. He suited up against the Bears on Sunday night.

For all the discussion points and social-issue awareness triggered by the NFL's September horribilis, the greatest question facing our most popular sport may be this: What to do now? How can a league that has seen its credibility shredded when it comes to disciplining players accused of violent acts move on? The lesson of last week was that more than ever, it's up to individual teams to decide when enough is enough—and that the playing field in those decisions is far from level.

IF THE chilling Rice video graphically demonstrates what partner abuse looks like, then Hardy's situation exposes other angles of domestic violence. It opens a window into how an assault can unfold, how high-profile cases play out and why a victim might be reluctant to testify against an alleged abuser. Maybe most damningly, it demonstrates why the NFL's new domestic violence policy is no "policy" at all, given that it hinges on the degree of star power that a player possesses and how much publicity his transgression receives.

Hardy's case is altogether different from Rice's but no less disturbing. One of the few points not in dispute from the early morning of May 13: Greg Hardy was upset. The Panthers star, now 26, was in the company of a former girlfriend, Nicole Holder, in Charlotte. Even during the heights of their romance—when, for instance, Holder flew to Hawaii to accompany Hardy to the Pro Bowl—their relationship had been volatile. But on this occasion Hardy seemed particularly agitated.

According to court testimony by Holder, Hardy's rage was aroused that night when the speakers at a club they were in blasted a song by Nelly. During one of the breaks in her on-again, off-again dating of Hardy, Holder, 24, had a brief romance with the rapper. Hearing the music of his ex-girlfriend's former flame didn't sit well with Hardy, and he and Holder were still arguing when they returned to Hardy's two-bedroom town house on North Tryon Street.

The pair was accompanied by Hardy's childhood friend turned manager, Sammy Curtis, and Curtis's sometime companion, Laura Iwanicki, as well as another couple, Kristina Laurence and a male friend, who retreated to a bedroom. The presence of several people in his home didn't restrain Hardy. First, according to the police report, he flung Holder onto a bed, then he threw her into a bathtub. Then he tossed her onto a futon covered with a cache of firearms. An inventory later filed with the Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office revealed nine semiautomatic rifles and shotguns, and one handgun. According to Holder, Hardy asserted that the rifles were loaded.

Next, Hardy ripped from Holder's body a necklace that he had given her. He threw the jewelry into a toilet, and when Holder attempted to fish it out, Hardy slammed the lid on her arm. He then dragged her by the hair from room to room, she said, before putting his hands around her throat. "He looked me in my eyes, and he told me he was going to kill me," Holder testified. "I was so scared, I wanted to die. When he loosened his grip slightly, I said, 'Just do it. Kill me.'"

From a bedroom, Laurence heard the commotion. She had never met Holder before that night. Alarmed, she ran to the building's security desk and called 911.

"What's going on?" the dispatcher asked.

"Domestic violence," Laurence responded frantically. "Do you hear that bulls---? He's beating her a-- in there. Some girl's getting her a-- beat upstairs and I heard it. And I seen it. He is beating her a-- right the f--- now. So get here now."

Dispatchers reported that they'd received a separate 911 call from the same address minutes earlier. It was Hardy, claiming that Holder hit him in the face. He also said that he had needed the help of Curtis—who lists on his Facebook page that he works for Hardy's agent, Drew Rosenhaus—to help restrain Holder. "She's hit me in the face twice," Hardy said. "She won't get out. We're trying to get her out of my house." Hardy told the dispatcher that he had videotaped the episode, a claim he would later retract.

Officers arrived and, according to the police report, "the witness [Laurence] stated several times, 'Greg just beat the s--- out of her; he almost broke her arm....' The victim [Holder] was crying and very upset. The victim had visual signs and swelling to both arms. Both elbows had scratches and welts. Minor cuts and scrapes and large areas of bruising and swelling were visible on her back."

Emergency room photos reveal bruises on Holder's foot, wrist, neck, chin, face, forearm, elbow and back. Holder, however, did not immediately give a statement. When asked why during the trial, she responded, "[Hardy] had told me in the past if I took food out of his family's mouth, he was going to kill me."

Hardy was charged with assault on a female and with communicating threats, both misdemeanors. A judge issued a protective order and ordered him to attend three Alcoholics Anonymous meetings per week. As he waited in jail for his lawyers to post the $17,000 bail, Hardy missed a team function: the Panthers' annual breakfast at Bank of America Stadium to raise money and awareness for combating domestic violence.

IN THE retelling, Roger Goodell was shamed by the public after handing down a two-game suspension for Rice in July. And it's true that last month the commissioner, after much criticism of his leniency, offered a mea culpa for his handling of the case. But that focus on public reaction overlooks the disgust within the NFL family. "Well, I'm kind of disappointed that the NFL didn't do their homework," Roger Staubach, the Hall of Fame quarterback, told SI. "I think, obviously, a lot of people do things when the public speaks out, and domestic violence should be at the top of the list of everything. There's other domestic violence in the NFL."

On Aug. 28, Goodell announced that a domestic violence clause was being added to the league's code of conduct, mandating a six-game suspension for a first-time offender. Before that, he summoned six domestic violence experts to his Manhattan office to help craft the new policy. "We were pretty honest with him," Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, told SI on Aug. 29. "We said that any suspensions had to be significant, or they wouldn't have an impact. And it was imperative for him to be consistent in all cases. If not, this all falls apart."

It didn't take long for another one of the experts in the room that day, Esta Soler, to grow skeptical of the league's commitment. "Proclaiming change is a good first step," says Soler, president of the San Francisco--based Futures Without Violence, "but if you're committed, you have to follow through." Soler notes that a mere three days after the policy was trumpeted, McDonald was arrested by San Jose police. Soler wonders why the 49er wasn't placed on the equivalent of paid leave. "Look, I believe in due process," she says. "But consider this: In law enforcement, if an officer is under investigation, he or she is sitting out until the case is resolved."

In declining to suspend McDonald, the NFL and the 49ers note that they are awaiting legal resolution. (McDonald hasn't been formally charged.) But when Hardy played in the Panthers' season opener, there had been a disposition in his case. On July 15, Hardy went before Becky Thorne Tin, a Mecklenburg District judge. In a bizarre and sometimes tawdry one-day bench trial that lasted into the night, Hardy's defense team and assistant district attorney Jamie Adams offered competing narratives. Hardy was represented by Chris Fialko, a Charlotte defense lawyer who had previously represented Panthers wide receiver Rae Carruth, convicted in 2001 of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder in the killing of the mother of his child. (Fialko has also publicly endorsed Tin in her reelection campaign.)

During the trial, Fialko depicted Holder as unstable and seduced by Hardy's fame. He accused her of concocting her story. There were intimations that she was interested in attaching herself to his wealth, though sources tell SI that Hardy was in financial straits as recently as last year. (Hardy and his agent, Rosenhaus, declined comment.)

Hardy's lawyers seemed surprised when Holder showed up to testify. Through state questioning and cross-examination, she spoke for close to an hour. At one point in the bench trial, Fialko questioned why Holder hadn't been more seriously injured, given the size difference between her and Hardy.

"You didn't break a fingernail, did you?" he asked.

"I did break a fingernail, a toenail," she replied.

"Well, good," Fialko said in response.

The lawyer suggested that Holder (who admitted during the trial that she'd used cocaine the evening of the altercation) had become enraged when Hardy told her to leave his apartment. Nonetheless, Tin gave Hardy a 60-day suspended sentence and 18 months probation on the misdemeanor charges. The judge called Holder a "consistent" and "credible" witness, and added, "the court is entirely convinced Hardy is guilty of assault on a female and communicating threats."

As allowed under North Carolina law, Hardy appealed the decision to a jury trial, which requires a unanimous verdict. Pending that appeal, Hardy's legal judgment was set aside—and he faced sanction from neither the NFL nor the Panthers. "The Hardy matter is under review," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote in an email to SI last week. "The case has not been resolved by the court." Likewise, the Panthers have said that "the appeal is part of the legal process." A court date of Nov. 17 has been set for the jury trial, though lawyers for Hardy express doubt that the case will be heard before 2015. Two weeks after Tin's verdict, Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman continued referring to Hardy's circumstances as "serious allegations."

To some observers Hardy's appeal created an unacceptable loophole. "This is a valid conviction, and it's based on the highest standard: beyond a reasonable doubt. He's manipulating the system—North Carolina's peculiar system—to his advantage," says Steve Ward, a retired Charlotte prosecutor and current law professor at Belmont Abbey (N.C.) College, who adds that less than 5% of bench trials are appealed. "And if the NFL is saying there hasn't been disposition, I think they're ducking the issue."

WITHOUT MENTIONING Hardy by name, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson broached the issue of domestic violence on Sept. 10. While he was accepting a local honor, the Echo Award Against Indifference, Richardson's voice caught as he said, "I stand firmly against domestic violence, plain and simple. To suggest we've been slow to act, I ask that you consider not to be too quick to judge."

Other NFL teams have, by Richardson's definition, judged quickly. In November 2013, Vikings cornerback A.J. Jefferson was arrested on a felony count of domestic assault by strangulation. On the day of the arrest, Minnesota cut Jefferson. (Later signed by the Seahawks, Jefferson pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of domestic assault and spent three days in jail.) It takes less than a cynic to point out that Jefferson does not come close to equaling the star wattage of Hardy, a franchise-tag player earning $13.1 million this season.

Last Friday, Carolina coach Ron Rivera announced that Hardy would start against the Lions. "We are trying to do things the right way," said Rivera, the NFL Coach of the Year last season. Then, barely an hour before Sunday's game—after public scrutiny on Carolina had intensified but without any change to the legal case—Rivera reversed field.

Despite the national conversation, teammate after teammate expressed surprise at the announcement of Hardy's deactivation. "That came out of nowhere," said defensive end Mario Addison after Carolina's 24--7 win over Detroit. "I don't think one guy knew." Added safety Roman Harper, "Am I surprised that it's becoming a big deal now, even though nothing has changed since July? I'll just say no comment."

Following the game, Rivera explained his decision to keep Hardy out. "We have to most certainly look at things the right way because we really do have to get this right. Believe me, I get that part of it," he said. "The climate has changed."

In some ways, yes. On Monday the NFL announced that Rita Smith is one of three advocates who will serve as senior advisers to help the league shape its policy on domestic violence and sexual assault. And that morning, word came that Hardy and Peterson would practice with their teams this week.





911: What's going on?

Male voice(MV): If we get the police here, we can talk to you about it when you get here.

Female voice(FV): Domestic violence. Do you hear that bulls---? He's beating her a-- in there. (female cont.) Some girl's getting her a-- beat upstairs, and I heard it. And I seen it. He is beating her a-- right the f--- now. So get here now. I was in the apartment, he's beating her a--.

911: OK, are they married?

MV: No, sir.

911: Does she need medical attention? Because I've already got officers on the way.

FV: You better come because who the f--- knows?

MV: She's saying she was in the front room and he was in the back room.

FV: I heard it all for the last half-hour.

911: Ma'am, let him speak, OK?

MV: What she first stated when she came back here was that she was in the front room and the guy....

FV: He's beating her a--.

MV: Let me finish the conversation please. So she stated it was domestic violence. She had to run out.... Anyway, she was in the front room. And the other girl getting beat up, she was in the back room or what not.

FV: We need the police here now before this girl gets seriously hurt. Now.

MV: They're already on the way.... The other female's walking out now....


Photograph by Sam Sharpe USA Today Sports



ENDLESS DEFENSE Hardy (with Rosenhaus) was convicted of assaulting Holder (right), but to the NFL his case is unresolved.



[See caption above]



NO RUSH TO JUDGMENT The league's inconsistency makes it easy to wonder if Hardy (sacking Russell Wilson last year) would be suspended if he weren't an elite pass rusher.



FAULT IN OUR STARS Goodell (top, with Richardson, right, and 49ers co-chairman John York, left) may face another difficult call on whether to discipline Peterson (above).



[See caption above]