By Rick Ritter

NEW YORK (WJZ) — Free to return to the field. An arbitrator overturns Ray Rice’s indefinite suspension from the NFL for knocking out his then-fiancee.

Rick Ritter reports on what’s next for the former Ravens running back.

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It’s not necessarily surprising. Many legal experts who WJZ spoke with over the past few weeks expected Rice to come out on top. Now the former Raven is eligible to sign with another NFL team immediately.

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From an explosive fallout to closer to stepping back on an NFL field, a judge rules in favor of Ray Rice ending his indefinite suspension for punching his then-fiancee, Janay Palmer, inside an Atlantic City casino elevator.

“As emotional as you can be about the issue, your duty is to protect the rights of the player,” said DeMaurice Smith, NFL Players Association.

That’s exactly what the players union did; arguing double jeopardy, saying Rice was punished twice for the same crime.

Commissioner Roger Goodell first suspended Rice two games. But when video of the incident surfaced and in the wake of public outrage, the Ravens cut Rice and the league banned him indefinitely, claiming it was new evidence.

“It was clear there was an act of domestic violence, but it was inconsistent with the way he described what happened,” said Goodell.

Former judge Barbara Jones ultimately decided Rice never misled the commissioner.

In her decision, Jones wrote:

“Because Rice did not mislead the commissioner and because there were no new facts on which the commissioner could base his increased suspension, I find that the imposition of the indefinite suspension was arbitrary. I therefore vacate the second penalty imposed on Rice. The provisions of the first discipline — those regarding making continued use of counseling and other professional services, having no further involvement with law enforcement, and not committing any additional violations of league policies–still stand.”

The NFL Players’ Association also responded to the ruling:

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“This decision is a victory for a disciplinary process that is fair and transparent. This union will always stand up and fight for the due process rights of our players. While we take no pleasure in seeing a decision that confirms what we have been saying about the Commissioner’s office acting arbitrarily, we hope that this will bring the NFL owners to the collective bargaining table to fix a broken process. It is clear that this decision should force the NFL to embrace neutral arbitration as part of a necessary due process in all cases. The players thank Judge Barbara Jones for her time and thoroughness in this matter.”

After the decision went public, ESPN released an interview they conducted with Rice’s wife, Janay, about what exactly happened inside that elevator.

According to the report, Janay said: “We got into the elevator and what happened inside is still foggy to me. The only thing I know–and I can’t even say I ‘remember’ because I only know from what Ray has told me–is that I slapped him again and then he hit me. I remember nothing else from inside the elevator.”

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At Ravens practice earlier this week, wide receiver Torrey Smith was asked about his former teammate.

“I hope he gets a second chance. We live in a country where you’re supposed to truly get second chances,” Smith said.

But the question remains: which NFL team–if any–will take a chance and sign Rice?

“He’ll get a chance to redeem himself and hopefully show people who he really is–because that guy on that tape made a bad decision,” Smith said.

A statement was released on behalf of Ray Rice, saying:

“I would like to thank Judge Barbara Jones, the NFL Players Association, my attorneys, agents, advisors, family, friends and fans – but most importantly, my wife Janay. I made an inexcusable mistake and accept full responsibility for my actions. I am thankful that there was a proper appeals process in place to address this issue. I will continue working hard to improve myself and be the best husband, father and friend, while giving back to my community and helping others to learn from my mistakes.”

WJZ tried reaching out to the Ravens for comment. They said only: “We are aware of the reports.”

Ray Rice has a separate grievance against the Ravens for wrongful termination of his contract. If Ray wins that case, he could collect more than $3 million.

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Rick Ritter