NFL investigation into Ray Rice video raises more questions

How can it be 'independent' if two league owners are involved with overseeing it?

September 11, 2014|By Peter Schmuck | The Baltimore Sun

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s decision to hire former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III to conduct what is being called an independent investigation of the league’s handling of the Ray Rice situation is a decisive move aimed at restoring public confidence in the sport.

But every new development seems to raise new questions.

For instance, just how independent will it be with two NFL owners – New York Giants owner John Mara and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney – overseeing it?

This is still about damage control, and the NFL has a lot of it to try and control after an Associated Press report on Wednesday charged that NFL officials were given a copy of the infamous second elevator video long before it was posted on the scandal site TMZ on Monday and well before Goodell made his decision to suspend Rice for only two games for the vicious assault.

But just as Major League Baseball found when it commissioned the Mitchell Report at the height of the sport’s steroid scandal, the NFL is going to find out that trying to polish its tarnished reputation with supposedly full disclosure comes with a price.

Mueller, like George Mitchell before him, will not have subpoena power, so he’ll be depending on the voluntary cooperation of all involved. Goodell has promised to make all NFL personnel and previous investigative material available, but it will be no surprise if Mueller’s report simply produces a meticulous timeline documenting everything we already know.

The only thing that is guaranteed now that the league has decided to go down this road is that the Ray Rice scandal – now seven months old – will remain front-page news for at least several more weeks.

Since the league has stressed that this will be an “independent” investigation, it’s probably important to note that Ravens team president Dick Cass worked previously at the same Washington, D.C., law firm as Mueller -- WilmerHale -- but they didn't overlap and haven't worked together. Cass worked at the firm from 1972 to 2003. Cass was chairman of the firm's business transactions section and a member of its management committee.

The NFL correctly has reached the conclusion that it needs to give at least the appearance of transparency, and having a well-respected outsider handling the investigation should have that effect. The decision to put Mara and Rooney in charge of Mueller was another attempt to show that Goodell is going to be out of the loop, but it probably would look better if the NFL simply handed Mueller the keys to the kingdom and told him to perform the investigation without any input from anyone closely connected with the commissioner.

Maybe that wouldn’t be practical, since there needs to be someone with the authority (other than Goodell) to force the league’s front office employees to cooperate with outside investigators, but the participation of two NFL owners who have been supportive of Goodell is still going to be an issue if the investigation ultimately concludes that Goodell was telling the truth when he insisted that no NFL officials – to his knowledge – had seen the video before Monday.

Ironically, the league has one thing going for it. The least that Mueller will be able to conclude is that Goodell and the NFL showed gross incompetence at the highest level, so the report will not be complimentary regardless of whether the investigation reveals a smoking gun that proves there was an internal conspiracy to whitewash the scandal.

Baltimore Sun reporter Aaron Wilson contributed.

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