Sports Nut

They Should Have Known Better

The Mueller report proves the NFL’s negligent handling of the Ray Rice case, but doesn’t go far enough.

Robert S. Mueller III

Robert S. Mueller III, former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in 2013.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images.

Former FBI director Robert Mueller has wrapped up the NFL’s internal investigation of its handling of Ray Rice’s Feb. 2014 assault of his then-fiancée Janay Palmer. Mueller’s report would appear to absolve the league of the flashiest accusation against it: that it had lied about when it had access to security footage of Rice knocking out Palmer. This partial exoneration, though, belies the report’s true findings: that the NFL could have easily gotten access to the tape, and that it didn’t need the tape to determine the seriousness of Rice’s assault.

The report found no evidence that anyone in the NFL had a copy of the video footage of Rice hitting Palmer, or ever saw the tape before its release by TMZ on Sept. 8, 2014. The findings directly contradict a report by the Associated Press that an anonymous law enforcement official had sent a copy of the tape to the league’s office and received a voicemail confirming its receipt from an NFL office phone number with a message in a woman’s voice saying, “You’re right. It’s terrible.” (After the report’s release on Thursday, the Associated Press stood by its reporting and said that the NFL investigators never spoke with the unnamed official.)

The timing of when league officials first saw the tape is important, because only after the footage went public did they respond with an indefinite suspension of Rice. The original punishment was a two-game suspension. (Meaning, if they had seen the tape earlier but only upped the punishment when the public got a good look, that would be very bad.)

The lengths to which Mueller went to investigate the AP claim sound impressive—he interviewed all 188 female employees, contractors, vendors, and interns who were in the office the day of the alleged call, assembled a database of all 1,583 calls that came from the NFL’s main number that day, reviewed electronic logs for tracked mail, interviewed all mailroom staff, and set up an anonymous-tip line. (It’s important to note, as the AP does in its pushback to the report, that Mueller’s investigation did not have subpoena power and relied upon the openness and good will of the league for its information.)

Mueller said the result of all that work was bupkis. But while the details of that one fact-finding mission take up the vast majority of Mueller’s nine-page executive summary (the full report is 96 pages), the question is almost completely beside the point.

Even if the league never saw the atrocious inside-the-elevator part of the assault, it had ample information to give Rice more than the two-game slap on the wrist and public ‘attaboys’ that commissioner Roger Goodell handed out after the NFL’s investigation was complete. The league, the Mueller report confirms, also had ample opportunity to acquire the tape.

Without the second tape, though, the league still had access to the footage we all saw in the early days of the scandal—of Ray Rice dragging an unconscious Janay Palmer out of the elevator at the Revel Casino, as well as the police summons that charged Rice with “striking [Palmer] with his hand, rendering her unconscious.”

“That information did not provide the graphic detail that the in-elevator video depicted,” Mueller writes, “but it should have put the League on notice that a serious assault had occurred and that it should conduct a more substantial independent investigation.” Mueller said that had such an investigation gone forward “it may have uncovered additional information about the incident, possibly including the in-elevator video prior to its public release.”

I’m glad Mueller notes that, but I still wish he hadn’t spent most of his efforts attempting to absolve the NFL of something that wasn’t even its biggest alleged crime. The report virtually ignores the equally serious question of the extent to which Goodell and the league willfully tried not to discover any additional information about the assault in the hopes of protecting a star player and favored franchise. Goodell has repeatedly said he was under a misimpression about what happened in that elevator, implying that Rice lied about it to him in his disciplinary hearing. When the second elevator video came out, Goodell used that supposed lie as the basis for handing down the harsher suspension. But last month, a district judge found that Rice had not misled Goodell, and she reinstated Rice in the league.

This alone proved that Goodell’s ignorance of exactly how Janay Palmer came to be knocked out was at the very least negligent, and at the worst willful. Mueller’s report fails to address which one.

It does offer supporting evidence for the willful theory, though, in confirming certain aspects of Don Van Natta Jr. and Kevin Van Valkenburg’s damning ESPN report, which demonstrated how Rice’s team, the Baltimore Ravens, misled the league and how the league seemed to let them. From Mueller’s report:

[A]fter the initial contacts with the Ravens in the immediate aftermath of the incident, League investigators did not follow up with the Ravens to determine whether the team had additional information.

The Ravens, however, did receive in late February a detailed description of the in elevator video from a lieutenant at ACPD, the agency responsible for the criminal investigation of the Rice incident. The Ravens did not volunteer that information to the League. But the League might well have received that information through more persistent and thorough communication with ACPD, and members of the Ravens indicated in our interviews that they would have shared the information they had learned with the League had the team been asked directly.

By the standards of the league, which justified its indefinite suspension of Rice by saying he did not tell Goodell the whole truth, this deception by omission would seem to validate a punishment for multiple Ravens officials. Considering Goodell’s friendship with Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and how it may have impacted the initial Rice investigation to begin with, this seems unlikely.

The Ravens knew what was on the second tape and, according to Van Natta Jr. and Van Valkenburg, they not only kept this information from the league, but used Bisciotti’s friendship with Goodell to successfully lobby on behalf of their star running back. From the ESPN report:

For its part, the NFL—which in other player discipline cases has been able to obtain information that’s been sealed by court order—took an uncharacteristically passive approach when it came to gathering evidence, opening itself up to widespread criticism, allegations of inconsistent approaches to player discipline and questions about whether Goodell gave Rice—the corporate face of the Baltimore franchise—a light punishment as a favor to his good friend Bisciotti. Four sources said Ravens executives, including Bisciotti, Cass and Newsome, urged Goodell and other league executives to give Rice no more than a two-game suspension, and that’s what Goodell did on July 24.

We would need a truly independent investigation to ever learn the lengths to which the NFL went to avoid learning what was on the second elevator video, not to mention to what extent Goodell went to protect his friends in the Ravens organization. Which means we will probably never know. Here’s one thing we do know, which the Mueller report confirms: The NFL did not need a second videotape to determine that what Ray Rice did to Janay Palmer was worth a proper investigation.