The National Football League announced late yesterday that it has retained former FBI director Robert Mueller to commence an internal investigation into its handling of the Ray Rice disciplinary fiasco under the guiding hands of New York Giants owner John Mara and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Arthur J. Rooney, II. The comedy of errors that has been the NFL’s modus operandi to date on this matter once again underscores the Watergate Principle that the cover-up is almost always worse than the crime itself. In that vein, Muller ought to look for league efforts to manufacture willful ignorance and plausible deniability of the full extent of Rice’s actions, despite its representations to the contrary.
For those who have been living under a rock, earlier this year the NFL suspended Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for two games after he punched and knocked unconscious his fiancé in an Atlantic City hotel elevator. Coming under fire from many corners for the comparative lightness of that punishment relative to others – Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon was almost simultaneously suspended one year for his second violation of the league’s substance abuse policy – the league defaulted to “ domestic violence is not covered in our collective bargaining agreement” to justify its action. Apparently, Gordon merited the stiffer penalty for hitting a blunt twice as many time as Rice hit his girlfriend.
The league had almost lived down the Rice decision when the intrepid TMZ got and posted surveillance video from the hotel elevator that showed, in all of its swift brutality, Rice’s knockout of the woman to whom he is now married. While gratuitous and appealing only to a prurient interest, it made Mike Tyson’s 30-second KO of Marvis Frazier look like a war of attrition. It did, however, manage to re-ignite questions about the NFL’s light treatment of the Ravens’ running back.
Commissioner Roger Goodell stepped in it when he told the media that the league had not seen the elevator video and that the league could not obtain it from law enforcement. This spurred incredulity among a media class that rightfully marveled that an organization whose security people are largely former Homeland Security, FBI, DEA, and state law enforcement officers, could not manage to get their hands on a videotape that Harvey Levin could. There were myriad ways that this might have been accomplished, one of which surely included buying a black-market copy.
Goodell committed this story to paper in a correspondence to team owners that was obtained by ESPN. In a story earlier yesterday on ESPN.com, the network reported that:
“In the letter, the NFL explains that it never saw a copy of the videotape from inside the elevator that showed Rice punching then-fiancée Janay Palmer in the face, which was posted by TMZ on Monday. The league has received a great deal of criticism for not being more aggressive in trying to get the tape and to better understand the contents on it.
* * * *
The letter states that the league requested the tape from multiple authorities, including the New Jersey State Police, the Atlantic City Police Department, the Atlantic County Police Department and the Atlantic County Solicitor’s Office. All requests were denied. The league said it made the requests at the beginning of the legal process and after Rice’s legal case concluded.”
When that statement came out of Goodell’s mouth, the first thought in this corner was the possibility of the NFL manufacturing its own ignorance in this matter.
Rice had been a terrific back for the Ravens, with the possibility of becoming its standard-bearer in the absence of a now-retired Ray Lewis, himself familiar with the inside of a courtroom. Indeed, the league-owned NFL Network has produced and repeatedly aired a glowing, hour-long biography of Rice during the past off-season. In a league increasingly populated by reprobates and criminals, Rice’s transgression was just another among many and probably did not raise eyebrows around a league office that anticipated its falling out of the news cycle relatively quickly. In that pursuit, it would have sorely benefitted the league not to look too hard at the underlying facts of the Rice assault and get him back on the field, particularly if it viewed him as an income-generating player.
Now sooner were these thoughts hashed out here, than the Associated Press broke a story asserting that the NFL had the elevator video all along:
“A law enforcement official says he sent a video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee to an NFL executive five months ago, while Commissioner Roger Goodell has insisted the league didn’t see the violent images until this week.
The person played The Associated Press a 12-second voicemail from an NFL office number on April 9 confirming the video arrived. A female voice expresses thanks and says: ‘You’re right. It’s terrible.’
The law enforcement official, speaking to the AP on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation, says he had no further communication with any NFL employee and can’t confirm anyone watched the video. The person said he was unauthorized to release the video but shared it unsolicited, because he wanted the NFL to have it before deciding on Rice’s punishment.
The NFL has repeatedly said it asked for but could not obtain the video of the Baltimore Ravens running back hitting Janay Palmer — who is now his wife — at an Atlantic City casino in February.
The league says it has no record of the video, and no one in the league office had seen it until it was released by TMZ Monday. When asked about the voicemail Wednesday, NFL officials repeated their assertion that no league official had seen the video before Monday.”
Around the same time, CBS Sports.com was seconding an ABC News report that Rice’s attorney had a copy of the elevator video, as well, that was not sought by the league:
“ . . . ABC News reported Wednesday evening that the team knew shortly after Ray Rice hit Janay Rice that a video from inside the elevator existed and that Rice’s lawyer had a copy but the organization never asked to see it. Rice’s lawyer reportedly asked the Atlantic City hotel for the full tape, and the hotel gave it to him.
More from ABC News:
The Ravens team also asked the hotel for the full video, but were told by the Revel they couldn’t give it out to anyone except someone who was a party to what’s on the tape or to law enforcement, the sources said. But Revel officials told the team that Rice’s attorney had a copy and the Ravens should ask the lawyer for the tape, the sources told ABC News.
The Ravens did not ask Rice or his lawyer for a copy of the video. Instead, the Ravens and the NFL asked law enforcement for the video which declined to give it up. It’s not clear whether the league was in contact with the Ravens about the incident at this time.”
When it was reported by multiple outlets that Mueller would be conducting the investigation for the NFL under the guidance of two owners, a Baltimore Sun columnist, among others, questioned the independence of the probe. Others have questioned the independence of Mueller, whose law firm has done work for the league.
As with Louis Freeh’s Penn State inquiry, however, the extraordinarily high level of publicity and Mueller’s own integrity should ensure a pretty straight shot here and its direction should be pretty clear. Whether it is a matter of the Commissioner protecting his league or NFL subordinate(s) seeking to give Goodell and the organization cover, what seems to need proving or disproving is whether anyone at the NFL really looked into what Ray Rice had done and, if not, whether anyone tried to hide not doing so.