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7 takeaways from the Robert Mueller investigation into the NFL and Ray Rice

A lengthy report released Thursday detailed exactly how the NFL and the Ravens made missteps during their investigations of the Ray Rice domestic violence case last year.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

An independent investigation into the NFL's handling of the Ray Rice case has concluded with findings that clear up some of the mysteries surrounding early reports about what took place, as well further condemn commissioner Roger Goodell, the league and the Baltimore Ravens for failing to do their due diligence.

The investigation, led by former FBI director Robert Mueller, encompassed "millions of documents, emails, text messages and electronic data logs" and included interviews with "more than 200 NFL employees and contractors." Its mission was two-fold: 1) Find out whether the NFL ever obtained the in-elevator video depicting Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee Janay Palmer and 2) Determine what information was available to the NFL during its investigation before it handed Rice an indefinite suspension.

According to report, the NFL was likely telling the truth when it insisted that it never saw the video before it was released to the public by TMZ last September. That doesn't mean that it did everything it could to obtain the video, nor that it even needed to see it to understand exactly what Rice had done, however.

Sources including message board posters and employees within the league office appeared to be aware of the video's contents when Goodell released a memo to team owners claiming that the TMZ leak had changed his perception of the case. It appears that Goodell, nor the Ravens and others close to the case, did not do as much as he could to determine the truth.

Seven things we learned:

1) The NFL investigation mostly started and ended with law enforcement

The Mueller report castigated the NFL for being overly reliant on law enforcement for information. The NFL did attempt to collect records from the Atlantic City Police Department, but Jim Buckley, the NFL's lead investigator on the case, was rebuffed twice shortly after the incident inside the elevator took place. Buckley also placed calls to the Atlantic City Solicitor's Office, which went unreturned, and spoke with a confidential source who confirmed the existence of an elevator camera but had no access to the tape.

2) Here is everything that the NFL didn't do

From the report:

The League could have, but did not, do the following:

  • League investigators did not contact any of the police officers involved in responding to or investigating the incident for information about the incident.
  • League investigators did not contact the Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office.
  • League investigators did not contact the Revel in an effort to obtain a copy of or at least see the video of what had occurred in the elevator or to obtain a copy of any internal Revel reports.
  • After the initial contacts with Sanders in February, League investigators did not periodically check with the Ravens to determine whether the team was in possession of additional information. The Ravens, in turn, did not share information that the team learned with the League.
  • League investigators did not contact Rice's lawyer for information either while the criminal case was active or after the PTI disposition on May 20 in anticipation of the June 16 meeting, nor did League investigators contact Rice himself at any point in time.
  • League investigators did not go back to ACPD or the Revel after May 20, when Rice's PTI application was approved, to see if more information might then be available to the League.

The Revel Casino and the Ravens were both seemingly well aware of what took place in the elevator, but the NFL did not deem it necessary to check in with them. Nor did the league do much follow-up with police after Buckley's inquiries in February.

3) The Ravens held back information

While the Mueller report condemns the NFL for the not asking the Ravens for information, it doesn't hold the Ravens blameless. The organization, well aware that the NFL was investigating its star running back, did not come forward with the materials it had, including:

  • An account of the in-elevator tape's contents as told by Lt. Rodney Ruark, an officer in the Atlantic City Police Department, to Darren Sanders, the Ravens' director of security.
  • That Rice's lawyer, Michael Diamondstein, was in possession of the tape.
  • That Ravens president Dick Cass had been given a description of the reaction to tape by Diamondstein.
From the report:

Indeed, both Sanders and Cass stated that if the League had asked them directly for information, they would have responded to the League's request. That said, the Ravens possessed this information and well understood that the events inside the elevator were under League investigation. They should have shared with the League information critical to its investigation.

4) The NFL did not see the tape

When Roger Goodell said in September that TMZ's release of the in-elevator tape caught him off guard, it appears he meant it, despite an Associated Press report that the news organization had heard a voicemail from a female employee within the league office confirming receipt of the video.

The AP would not reveal its sources to Mueller for the investigation, so the investigatory team went to exhaustive lengths to determine whether the call to the league office could have taken place. Investigators talked to 50 employees who might have knowledge if the office received the tape, and 188 female employees who denied leaving the voicemail. They found email exchanges that referred to the tape without any hint that any NFL employee had seen it. They searched the computers and mobile devices of top league executives, including Goodell, for evidence of the tape. Perhaps most impressively, the investigators placed A LOT of phone calls ...

We assembled a database of every call placed on April 9 from the NFL's main number -- 1,583 calls to 1,050 unique telephone numbers in total. ... As part of that effort, we asked each NFL employee from whose extension calls were placed to identify the person they called. The employees identified NFL vendors, former players, nearby restaurants, doctors' offices, family members, and the like. We then validated that information by calling each person or entity identified. Through this process, we ultimately called all 938 numbers and found no unexplained or unidentified calls from the League on April 9 that reasonably could have been a call acknowledging receipt of the in-elevator video.

... and still found nothing.

5) The NFL didn't need to see the tape

But even if someone in the NFL office had seen the tape, it wouldn't have provided any more clarity. The Mueller report corroborated what Judge Barbara Jones had determined in her appeal decision to reinstate Rice: The NFL already knew what was on the tape before it was leaked.

From the report:

Specifically, our investigation found that the League knew the following information:

  • On February 19, the League was aware of the outside-the-elevator video, showing Rice dragging an unconscious Palmer out of the elevator. Birch described thisvideo to Goodell as "pretty bad."
  • On February 20, the League received a copy of the complaint-summons, written by ACPD officers who had seen the in-elevator video and charging Rice with"striking [Palmer] with his hand, rendering her unconscious." A contemporaneous press release from ACPD indicated that the arresting officers reviewed video before making the arrest. Given that it was issued publicly, that release was available to the League.
  • By June 6, the League had a copy of the March 27 grand jury indictment, alleging that Rice "did attempt to cause significant bodily injury to [Palmer], and/or did purposely or knowingly cause significant bodily injury to [Palmer] and/or under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life, did recklessly cause significant bodily injury to [Palmer]."

Standing alone, those three pieces of information-one piece of concrete visual evidence from outside the elevator and two generated by the criminal justice system-indicated that a serious assault had occurred inside the elevator, thus suggesting a need for further investigation.

6) Message board posters and anonymous sources had the story right

One of the odder facts from the Mueller report was that the news of the Rice incident may have been broken by an InsideHoops message board poster:

In the early morning of February 15 (less than 5 hours after the incident), a commenter named "StateProperty" on InsideHoops -- a website relating principally to news about the National Basketball Association -- started a thread on a message board titled "Ray Rice arrested for domestic last night." The comment stated: "My ex coworker texted me said he got arrested last night for a domestic at my old job ... . Don't know the details but it'll probably get released later today." The comment ended with "Revel Casino in Atlantic City." Just over an hour later, the StateProperty commenter replied to his own thread, stating, "Knocked out his girlfriend TKo [sic] style." At 8:51 p.m., another commenter wrote, "I dare you to call the Baltimore Sun. You could be the anonymous tipster that breaks the story!" StateProperty responded: "I live in Bmore now, I'm walking over as soon as I awake!"

The league was also aware of a report in the Baltimore Sun by reporter Aaron Wilson, who cited an anonymous source who had explicit details of the incident.

By February 16, the League was aware of information provided to Wilson by an anonymous source who identified himself as a Revel employee. The source allegedly stated: "It was horrific. It shocked the conscience. He knocked her out with one punch. She was out for three minutes. He dragged her out like a limp noodle. He hit her so hard. It was unbelievable. We gave her ice packs for her head." Wilson's source included specific details like Rice's full name, date of birth, and home address (all of which appeared in the Revel's non-public incident file) suggesting that the source had first-hand-or access to first-hand-information. This report was labeled a "witness account" in the materials assembled by the League for the June 16 meeting.

7) The NFL needs to be WAY better organized

The report made a list of recommendations. Among the most glaring is the suggestion that the NFL start transcribing its hearings:

Where a player and interested parties appear before the disciplinary officer, Commissioner, or designee during a disciplinary proceeding, the meeting should be transcribed so that there is no ambiguity as to what was presented and discussed.

The poor note-taking by Goodell and others who sat in on Rice's disciplinary meeting in June was cited by Jones in her decision to overturn the running back's suspension.

The NFL enacted a new personal conduct policy last month that, among other things, gives the league the flexibility to conduct its own fact-finding independent of police investigation. In addition to that flexibility, however, and the establishment of a Special Counsel for Investigations and Conduct, Mueller report also suggested a series of measures to significantly beef up the NFL's investigatory arm, including:

  • Expanding the league's security department.
  • Establish a specialized investigative team geared to handle domestic violence or sexual assault cases.
  • Creating written guidelines for conducting future investigations.
  • Providing annual training for security staff.
  • Establishing formal performance reviews of security representatives.
  • Clarifying the league's policy on information sharing by clubs during an investigation.

The NFL Players Association objected to much of the new conduct policy, which was not collectively bargained. There is little doubt that the players union would protest again if the NFL adopts some of Mueller's recommendations, which could put players under more scrutiny. Given how Goodell and the NFL league office have handled the Rice case, it's understandable why players may be hesitant to allow the league even more power during investigations.