The National Football League will conduct an “independent investigation” into whether its offices obtained video footage of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching and knocking out his then-fiancee during a February incident in an Atlantic City casino, the league announced late Wednesday. The announcement of the investigation came after the Associated Press reported that a law enforcement official had mailed the video footage, which TMZ made public Monday, to NFL offices in April, and that someone in the league office confirmed receiving it in a voicemail message.
The results of the investigation, according to the NFL’s statement, will be made public.
While the NFL is billing this as an “independent” inquiry, it does not appear that is the best word to describe it. Former FBI director Robert Mueller III will lead the investigation. Mueller is currently a partner at the law firm WilmerHale, which has represented the NFL in broadcast negotiations and other matters. The firm, at different times, has represented Washington owner Daniel Snyder, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, and the Indianapolis Colts, and it has sent employees to positions within the NFL and its teams. Ravens president Richard Cass, in fact, was a partner at the firm and worked there for 31 years before he took the Baltimore job in 2004.
Further, the investigation will be overseen by New York Giants co-owner John Mara and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, two of Goodell’s closest allies. Mara has already defended the commissioner’s handling of the Rice situation.
“My understanding is that the League and the Ravens made repeated requests to obtain the video of the Ray Rice incident and were denied each time,” Mara said Wednesday (prior to the AP report). “The notion that the League should have gone around law enforcement to obtain the video is, in my opinion, misguided, as is the notion that the Commissioner‘s job is now in jeopardy. The video is appalling, and I believe that the team and the League took appropriate action after they finally had the opportunity to view it.”
It is still possible that this will result in a meaningful investigation. But it is also worth remembering that this is the result of a massive unforced error on Goodell’s part and should not have been necessary. By the time Goodell handed Rice the original two-game suspension, the NFL did not need the video to know that Rice had been arrested, that he had been arrested for punching his wife, that he did not deny punching his wife, that he had entered a pre-trial diversionary program to avoid a conviction, that surveillance video showed him dragging his wife out of an elevator while she was unconscious. It never took much imagination to understand what happened inside that elevator, to realize what it looks like when a 210-pound NFL running back punches his wife in the face.
But the NFL needs everyone to believe now that, despite multiple and detailed reports to the contrary, it didn’t see that footage. It’s not only a terrible look publicly if Goodell or someone else involved in Rice’s disciplinary case saw that video and decided two games counted as a sufficient punishment, it could also raise labor issues over his longer, re-issued punishment for Rice, who is now suspended indefinitely. And for public relations reasons and perhaps even to save his job, Goodell needs this investigation to convince everyone that he and his league haven’t been lying since Monday.
And so we have reached the point at which the NFL has hired a former FBI director to find out if its office received a package, a package that reportedly contained a video Goodell shouldn’t have needed to see in the first place.
From a public relations standpoint, it probably won’t matter either way. Even if the AP report and all the others are wrong and the NFL didn’t have the video, the questions about how the league managed to avoid obtaining footage that Rice’s attorneys and others apparently had will remain. Still, maybe this investigation will find something, and if it does, someone — maybe even but probably not Goodell — will likely end up under the bus. The NFL, with another PR move aimed at getting it out a hole it keeps on digging, is hoping that by then we’ll all have moved on to something else, preferably something that includes actual football.